These teens are up for rollicking 'Debate'

By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2009
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Rachael Hunt is a force of nature. The uninhibited joy she exudes in the Lyric Stage Company's "Speech & Debate" is irresistibly energizing. But the beauty of this not-to-be missed comedy is that Hunt's performance is matched by the outstanding work of both Chris Conner and Alex Wyse, and all three are nimbly directed by Jeremy Johnson.

Playwright Stephen Karam uses the framework of speech and debate tournament rules to create a pseudo-structure for his story of three high-school freaks who find themselves thrown together as part of a most unlikely debate team. As the play opens, we meet Howie (Conner), who has just moved from Portland to Salem, Ore., for his final year of high school. He sits in his bedroom cruising the Web for a hookup, until he realizes he sent his photo to the high-school drama teacher.

Back at the school, Wyse, as Solomon, a geeky, overeager school newspaper reporter, is trying to get his teacher (the always-excellent Maureen Keiller) to discuss a sex scandal involving teenage boys and the mayor of Salem. "Why can't we talk about anything real?" he asks her. But as she puts him off, we begin to suspect Solomon's investigative efforts are also his naive attempt to understand his own conflicted desires.

The third member of this unlikely trio is Diwata (Hunt), an aspiring actress who creates a "monoblog," outlining her frustrations with not being cast in the school productions of "The Crucible" and "Once Upon a Mattress," complete with impromptu singing and a hilariously repetitive set of three chords that plays on her Casio keyboard. When Howie e-mails her with his phone number to talk about the drama teacher who's dissed her, Solomon notices the posting and calls Howie himself.

Before you know it, despite very different agendas, all three have become the only members of the fledgling debate team. In spite of themselves, and mostly due to Diwata's single-minded efforts, the trio is working toward a presentation, even though Diwata is determined to turn it into a musical-theater performance to promote her talent, Solomon insists it be a forum for his investigative journalism, and Howie is just trying to get through senior year with his dignity intact.

When Diwata invites a Salem journalist to a "rehearsal," the competing agendas come crashing together in a performance that has absolutely nothing to do with speech and debate. The production number that combines Arthur Miller's "Crucible" story with Abraham Lincoln as a gay teen is hilarious, primarily for Conner's pouting performance and Hunt's blending of Idina Menzel in "Wicked" with the "Crucible" character Mary Warren. Later, when the three break all the tournament rules and perform Howie's interpretive dance to George Michael's "Freedom," your sides may hurt from laughing so hard.

Under Johnson's sharp direction, the actors craft characters that are distinctive without becoming cliched, and some of Karam's seemingly random tangents (including Solomon's story of Lincoln as a teen and Howie's tale of Cain as gay-basher) have a poignance because the performances are so strong.

At its heart, "Speech & Debate" celebrates the unlikely ways these teens connect as they question who they are and where they're headed. This Lyric Stage production makes the audience want to stand up and cheer them on.

SPEECH & DEBATE Play by Stephen Karam.

Directed by: Jeremy Johnson. Scenic design, Skip Curtiss. Costume design, Mallory Frers. Sound design, Stephen McIntosh. Lighting design, Margo Caddell.

At the Lyric Stage Company through April 25.

Tickets: $25-$50. 617-585-5678,

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