Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The great debate

September 20, 2008


So last night I made it over to The Blank Theater in Hollywood for the West Coast Premiere of Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate. It’s very funny and much worth seeing. This should really be no surprise in that it comes out of Daniel Henning’s little-shop-that-could which has littered the L.A. theater scene with some of the most memorable local theater productions in recent years including LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, the hilarious revival of Amy and David Sedaris’ The Book of Liz, and the recent adaptation of the Leopold and Loeb story, Dickie and Babe. The Blank continues to do more with less than just about any other theater organization in town.

Karam’s play, which ran off-Broadway in 2007, concerns rather worn terrain - three teenagers in a moderately sized American community come together despite their awkwardness to overcome a conglomeration of individual traumas. The two gay male characters, Solomon a closeted Catholic cub reporter and Howie an out just-turned-18 transplant, provide contrasts to one another as well as most of the play’s tension. But frankly, as interesting as they are played by the wonderful Aaron Himelstein and Michel Welch respectively, they are ultimately window dressing for the comedic centerpiece, the secretly pregnant under-talented and overly ambitious Diwata. Frustrated in being passed over for parts in her school’s production of Once Upon a Mattress, she turns to her own video blog to promote her own musical “Crucible!” an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s classic play. Diwata fancies herself as Mary Warren and lionizes her for sticking to her lie and living another day. Of course, Diwata has no other forum for her work until the opportunity to start up the school's new speech and debate team presents itself. Now all she has to do is blackmail the guys into participating as well, which is where the whole pedophile subplot comes in.

Needless to say it’s a rather unusual take on highly cliché themes. It never sinks into preachiness or much sentimentality but keeps the laughs coming. A huge credit goes to Mae Whitman whose gives a brilliant kinetic, wound and edgy performance. That she manages all of this without ever becoming cloying is a big achievement. The above video can give you a taste but be warned the live performance was far superior. Now don’t get me wrong, there are problems. The motivation and plot never really congeal into a logical whole. The motivation of both young men seems confused and contradictory and I often was wondering what exactly was supposed to be going on. But, in a tale of adolescence, this may be the most appropriate. Plus a lot can be overlooked with Speech and Debate, which is essentially a very rare commodity - a comedy that is actually funny.


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