If you don’t think Speech & Debate
sounds like the title of a play you’d be interested in sitting through, nobody can blame you. It doesn’t sound like the title of a play anybody who wasn’t a passionate member of their high school speech and debate team would be interested in sitting through. Dave Landis, the show’s director, understands and thinks the comedy’s off-putting title may be a bit of a prank the playwright is pulling on the theatergoing public. He confesses that it sounded so unappealing to him that he kept putting off reading it, constantly moving the script to the bottom of an ever-expanding pile of new plays waiting to be read. That, he explains, is one of the reasons why the critically acclaimed show is being produced at TheatreWorks and not as part of Playhouse on the Square’s regular season. When Landis did finally sit down to read Stephen Karam’s dark coming-of-age comedy, he was charmed by the cleverly imagined story of three high school misfits caught up in a web of scandal and secrets.
Karam is a highly inventive storyteller with a gift for capturing how teenagers who’ve grown up with online social networking actually talk. Although Speech & Debate isn’t a musical, it does feature a song-and-dance number in which a witch from Salem travels through time to converse with an openly gay Abe Lincoln. “But the show is mostly about three teenagers who come together to discuss the things adults won’t, to have the conversations and to answer questions adults don’t want to deal with,” Landis says. — Chris Davis