Speech and Debate at American Theater Company | Theater review
If beginning art-school students are required to draw a perfect circle—a task that can’t be accomplished but does wonders for formal technique—students of playwriting should be required to write an average teenager. Nobody would get it exactly right, but theatergoers would get fewer Disneyfied High School Musicals and more plays like Karam’s seemingly effortless pop comedy Speech and Debate.
The tale of three Oregon teens whose knowledge of each other’s incriminating sexual secrets is used as blackmail bargaining chips—to force one another into joining socially ostracized extracurricular activities—is so reckless, delicate and slight, it feels as though it could misfire at any moment. But Karam’s devotion to etching out a troika of high-school Sturm und Drang keeps him on task. With the exception of a third-act plot dalliance into less-than-believable territory, Speech and Debate hits its moving cultural targets—Google as a verb, Abe Lincoln as a closet queen, musicals as high art—all evening long.
New ATC artistic director Paparelli makes a startlingly sure-footed Chicago directorial debut. Drawing inventive, colorful designs out of his entire team, especially scenic artist Keith Pitts, Paparelli unpacks a dynamic stage vocabulary, keeping a casual but always-buzzing energy behind the action. His terrific young actors—sober McGuire as a sweetly aching conservative newspaper reporter, hilarious Rifai as a prima donna with a bourgeois palate and invaluable Andrews as a sly, gay Jiminy Cricket—always make us feel in on the joke. This play is a fucking blast.