Monday, June 28, 2010

Theater review: 'Speech and Debate' is GableStage's youth movement

Jackie Rivera,‭ ‬David Dearstyne and Ryan Didato
in Speech and Debate at GableStage.‭
(‬Photo by George Schiavone‭)

By Hap Erstein

Although he must have been absent in playwriting class the day they covered creating enticing titles,‭ ‬Stephen Karam demonstrates his skill with contemporary dialogue and the angst of today’s youth in the breezy,‭ ‬comic‭ ‬Speech and Debate.

While more lightweight than GableStage’s usual fare,‭ ‬the production demonstrates the company’s continued interest in new talent‭ ‬--‭ ‬introducing Karam to South Florida as well as three fresh-faced performers who have recently graduated from Miami’s New World School of the Arts.

They play unpopular misfits in a Salem,‭ ‬Ore.‭ ‬High school,‭ ‬geeks who have gravitated to the debate club and taken it over by default.‭ ‬The club and the school newspaper become forums for their crusades,‭ ‬particularly against Salem’s conservative mayor,‭ ‬who opposes gay adoption but apparently has homosexual designs on underage boys himself.

Then there is Mr.‭ ‬Healey,‭ ‬the school’s drama teacher,‭ ‬who has made sexual advances on both male characters‭ ‬--‭ ‬online chat-obsessed,‭ ‬openly gay Howie‭ (‬David Dearstyne‭) ‬and Solomon‭ (‬Ryan Didato‭)‬,‭ ‬an investigative reporter wannabe.‭ ‬The female apex of the debate club triangle,‭ ‬a little dynamo named Diwata‭ (‬Jackie Rivera‭)‬,‭ ‬also has it in for Healey.‭ ‬Not for his unprofessional indiscretions,‭ ‬but because he cannot see that she deserves to be given the leading role in the school play.

Healey may not see it,‭ ‬but GableStage theatergoers will.‭ ‬Rivera has genuine star quality,‭ ‬a charismatic bundle of energy with terrific comic timing and an underlying vulnerability.‭ ‬These qualities are particularly evident in Diwata’s hyperactive rendition of her musical version of Arthur Miller’s‭ ‬The Crucible and a nude‭ (‬well,‭ ‬with flesh-colored leotard‭) ‬interpretive dance.‭ ‬Karam certainly has some offbeat comic notions,‭ ‬but it is the way Rivera puts them across that is most memorable.

By comparison,‭ ‬Dearstyne and Didato come off far blander than desirable.‭ ‬In the only two visible adult roles,‭ ‬a put-upon teacher and a clueless reporter,‭ ‬Patti Gardner manages to make something of the sketchy assignments.‭ ‬In a rare sidestep,‭ ‬artistic director Joe Adler hands over the staging chores to Amy London,‭ ‬who makes some headway in giving the episodic tale some dramatic shape.

The play’s focus is on awkward teens,‭ ‬but the script is more disjointed and awkward than necessary.‭ ‬The alienation of youth is a common theme of young writers,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Speech and Debate does update the topic with references to texting,‭ ‬Google and podcasts.‭ ‬The script feels up to the minute,‭ ‬but it seems likely to become dated soon.

Still,‭ ‬Karam is a writer to keep an eye on and Rivera is the reason to see the production at GableStage.‭

SPEECH AND DEBATE,‭ ‬GableStage,‭ ‬1200‭ ‬Anastasia Ave.,‭ ‬Coral Gables.‭ ‬Through July‭ ‬18.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$37.50‭ ‬-‭ ‬$45.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬305‭) ‬445-1119.‭

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