Speech & Debate
PURE Theatre
Lance Hall
Circular Congregational Church
150 Meeting St.
Aug. 12-15 at 7:30 p.m.
Wed./$20; Thurs./$25; Fri., Sat./$30; students/$15
(843) 723-4444

Playwright Stephen Karam has obviously hit a nerve with his school-set comedy Speech & Debate. Since its premiere two years ago, it’s been performed off-Broadway and in theaters across the country. So what’s so special about this tale of three high school misfits forming a debate team?

The real pleasure in this play rests with the distinct personalities of the orators. There’s Diwata, a self-absorbed wannabe actress who is endearingly bad at everything she does. Solomon is associate editor of the school newspaper, desperate for hard news but thwarted by administrative censorship. The foil for their enthusiasm is Howie, an eternally exasperated gay kid who’d rather be doing anything but hanging around with Diwata and Solomon.

Howie has little choice, because together they have a chance to express their feelings and unveil the hypocrisy of the adults around them — especially Mr. Healey, a teacher who has courted Howie on the internet.

The three lead actors in this play aren’t afraid of being obnoxious or unlikeable, a key to suspending the audience’s disbelief during their adventures. Sullivan Graci-Hamilton ably drives the show as the motormouthed Diwata, always gung-ho and often misguided. Clumping around in oversized red shoes, Graci-Hamilton shows innocence, ungainliness, social inadequacy, and raw ambition over the course of the play.

As Howie, Will Northcutt starts with a broad portrayal as if he’s trying to fill a larger space. But he settles down and becomes a little more subtle in his first dialogue scene with Graci-Hamilton. Apparently channeling Crispin Glover, he adds plenty of physical quirks to a character that could have come off as a mere moody teenager.

Addison Dent plays Solomon, who is the most approachable and down-to-earth of the characters. Solomon’s also the most fully rounded of the trio, agonizing over the effect his stories will have on the people around him but still determined to be efficient and make his mark as a cub reporter.

Since the school paper won’t take his story about gay officials, Diwata suggests using the Speech & Debate squad as a way to get the information out. It will be broadcast on public access, after all. So the trio decides to combine a musical version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, time travel, and a teenaged Abraham Lincoln to address the issue — and to get a little attention.

In Speech & Debate, Karam poses a big question: is it better to hold in your feelings and opinions to get ahead or express yourself and experience some freedom? The characters have their own, differing opinions, and there’s a sense that a deeper exploration of this subject would make for a meatier play.

But that isn’t what PURE is going for here. The simple but effective set indicates what the company is after — a child’s-eye view of a sick grown-up world. A background cloud looks like a comic-strip thought bubble; blackboards show childlike drawings of sailboats and a flower.

Directors Sharon Graci and David Mandel let their actors goof around but add many delicate touches as the drama develops. C. Kathleen Donnelly has a good double cameo as a teacher and a reporter. She’s most effective when she’s heard but not seen, as when she’s a reporter broadcasting a local NPR commentary on the kids’ antics.

If you’re expecting heavyweight drama, you’ll be disappointed. With its thin plot and scattershot humor, this isn’t one of PURE’s strongest plays. It’s still a lot of fun, and for those who want lighter fare that still tackles current concerns like underage sex and Republicans who can’t keep their pants on, Speech & Debate has a lot of appeal. More than anything, you’ll come away with the feeling that the actors have enjoyed their rehearsal process and want to be as compelling as possible — not a bad goal for this group of promising young performers.

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