We made a mistake in our first Spoleto schedule this year. We listed PURE Theatre’s Speech and Debate as a Kids’ Pick. We were quickly informed that the play is not suitable for children, and we made the correction. After seeing it Wednesday afternoon, we feel extra guilty for our mistake — Speech and Debate is for mature audiences only.
Sure, it stars three young, high school-aged kids — Addison Dent, Will Northcutt, and Sullivan Graci Hamilton (the daughter of co-director Sharon Graci). But the topics they tackle and language they use include things you’d never want to hear come out of your kids’ mouth — no matter how old they are. But, (earmuffs, parents), it’s also a lot more realistic than some would like to think.
Written by Stephen Karam, the play follows three misfits as they react to a scandal in Salem, Ore., involving closeted Republicans and sex with minors. The three come together over the speech and debate team. They each have their own agenda and their own secrets, but they bond over their outsider status.
It’s a lot like The Breakfast Club, minus the popular kids. Specifically, it’s like the climactic part where they all get angry and yell at each other, then get high and bond over their screwed-up lives. Except it’s been updated with more serious and modern issues. (That said, do people even use chat rooms anymore?)
It’s easy for movies, books, and plays about growing up and finding yourself to veer into cliché-ville, but Speech and Debate manages to avoid that. The characters are believable and relatable, mostly because they are so young, and a little bit awkward. Their flubbed lines and stumbles only make their characters more authentic.
The topics are serious, but it’s a hilarious little play. Hamilton provides the most comic relief as the hyperactive drama queen with an obsession with The Crucible, a video blog, and a major grudge. Dent plays the straight man (kind of literally) as the school newspaper reporter trying to get the scoop on a scandal. And Northcutt is the new kid at school. Like the others, he’s hiding a big secret. And it’s not his wicked dance moves.
Besides each of the actors’ strong performances, the simple, clever set is another highlight. Three tall double-sided chalkboards are used to represent the characters’ homes and the classroom. They roll them around easily between scenes. A cheesy Power Point presentation, complete with a few misspellings, is used for scene changes as well.
Glee fans take note: There is a glee club-style George Michael musical number near the end that is one of the funniest parts of the play.