Roundabout kicks off its Underground project to nurture new talent on a promising note with “Speech & Debate.” Stephen Karam’s savvy comedy about three teenage outsiders grappling with sexual secrets and drawn together via the Internet is imperfect, rambling and messily plotted, but it’s bristling with vitality, wicked humor, terrific dialogue and a direct pipeline into the zeitgeist of contemporary youth. Staged with verve by Jason Moore and played by a pitch-perfect cast of four, this disarming production has enough arguments in its favor to make the flaws seem secondary.
The play inaugurates Roundabout’s new space, the 62-seat Black Box Theater, situated in the basement below the company’s larger Off Broadway home, the Laura Pels, and accessible only by elevator. The generically disposable name points up the strategy of seeking a sponsor to underwrite this laudable but economically challenging initiative from one of the city’s leading nonprofit theater companies as it reaches beyond the established mainstream to experiment with fresh work from developing playwrights.
Karam co-wrote the considerably darker “columbinus,” a meditation on events leading to the 1999 high school massacre in Littleton, Colo., which played last season at New York Theater Workshop. The 27-year-old playwright clearly has empathy for adolescent unease. He also has a keen ear for how teens talk, move and think, how they view each other and the adult world.
Inspiration for the new play was a 2004 sex scandal in which the then-mayor of Spokane, Wash., was caught trolling in an online gay chatroom with an 18-year-old male. To playfully serve his parallels with a certain 17th century witch hunt scenario, Karam shifts the location to Salem, Ore. According to enterprising school reporter Solomon (Jason Fuchs), the mayor here also has a taste for the lads, as does high school drama teacher Mr. Healy. The latter carelessly uses an identifiable email address during an opening chat with Howie (Gideon Glick), a recent Portland transplant who’s been out for almost half his 18 years.
Both boys connect with a third friendless, misfit teen when, during her Casio keyboard-accompanied “monoblog,” Diwata (Sarah Steele) airs her grievance with Mr. Healy over being shut out of the lead of North Salem High’s production of “Once Upon a Mattress.” Anxious to beef up her performance quota for her transcript, the aspiring actress doesn’t take rejection lightly.
Each of the kids eyes adult hypocrisy in different ways: Solomon seeks to expose it, Diwata to exploit it and Howie just to co-exist with it peacefully and maybe get laid by some hot older dude. With varying degrees of aggressiveness, however, all three pursue their own agendas, colliding in the otherwise unpopulated Speech & Debate Club and using compromising knowledge of each other for leverage.
Karam and Moore start out on a high with some snappy early scenes enlivened by sharp character presentation and witty use of rear-wall computer desktops (Anna Louizos did the resourceful utilitarian set; Brett Jarvis designed the projections). Means and motivations unravel slightly thereafter, particularly in a bloated midsection with overlong consecutive scenes between Diwata and each of the guys. But while the setup is lumpy, the conflicts explode in consistently intriguing ways. And Karam uses both the advantages and perils of cyberspace to make amusing, original points.
Helping to keep the material engaging even through its looser stretches are the three teens’ respective creative endeavors, all cleverly incorporated. Howie authored a gay revisionist take on the Cain and Abel story at age 9, involving a “queeny time-travel kid,” later choreographing a routine for a Boy Scout talent show to George Michael’s “Freedom.” Solomon reflects in prose on a young Abraham Lincoln coming out to his folks. Most hilariously, Diwata develops “Crucible,” her musical take on the Arthur Miller play, in which she channels Idina Menzel as Mary Warren.
Karam locates and sustains the unlikely connections between these oddball fantasies with the aid of frequent musical interludes, alternately deadpan and exuberant.
The delightful cast certainly helps, too. Fresh from “Spring Awakening,” Glick is not new to teen turmoil, but his character here is a neat flip from his fledgling gay boy in the hit musical, seemingly destined for heartache. Howie has zero uncertainty about his sexuality, and the actor even makes his affectedly languid delivery and effete hand gestures a natural extension of who he is.
Fuchs does classic nerd with understated humor (he’s a dead ringer for Samm Levine from “Freaks and Geeks”), nicely balancing his career-oriented drive with a sensitive side fueled by personal issues.
The fearless Steele is magic every minute she’s onstage, and both Moore and Karam make the most of her. Best known as Adam Sandler’s daughter in “Spanglish,” the young actress is eccentric without contriving to be so; she’s both unselfconsciously vulnerable and supremely knowing.
Rounding out the cast is “[title of show]” alum Susan Blackwell, who puts an incisive spin on the only two adult figures seen in the play, one a supposedly liberal teacher with a strong censorship mechanism, the other an arts reporter who’s a dry caricature of condescending, self-spotlighting NPR types.
“Speech & Debate” may need refinement to meet its full potential but showcasing raw material that can benefit from further nurturing is the declared goal of Roundabout Underground, which producer Robyn Goodman (“Avenue Q”) is curating. Score one for the new enterprise.