Review: ‘Speech and Debate’ at Peter’s Alley

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Peter’s Alley is offering a very funny production of Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam at Theatre on the Run. Karam, whose play, The Humans, won the 2016 Tony award for Best Play, has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, so the guy has chops.

Grant Collins, Taunya Ferguson, Jordan Clark Halsey, and Kendall Helblig in Speech and Debate. Photo by David G. Jung.
Grant Collins, Taunya Ferguson, Jordan Clark Halsey, and Kendall Helblig in Speech and Debate. Photo by David G. Jung.

Howie, Solomon, and Diwata are three high schoolers in Salem, Oregon who eventually connect to form the speech and debate club at their school. They all lack friends at school and both Diwata and Solomon have dreams which they are willing to fight for, but like Howie, both have secrets they wish to protect.

Diwata (Kendall Helblig) is a drama queen indignant about not getting cast in the shows at the high school. She blames the drama teacher, who doesn’t seem to recognize her talent. Solomon (Grant Collins) is the awkward, but motivated reporter for the school newspaper, eager to expose the rumored story about the town’s anti-gay mayor who is secretly dating young boys. Howie (Jordan Clark Halsey) is the openly gay and charming new kid in town who has not yet found friends. When they find out what the others are hiding, each of them use the threat of blackmail to control each other. The fourth actor is Taunya Ferguson, portraying the two adults we meet in the play, a teacher and a reporter, each of whom controls access to the teens being able to spread their stories to a larger audience.

While the humor of teen angst is the vehicle for the story, it really only serves as an invitation to the broader exploration of human bonding and dependency on others. But you will be laughing so much, the depth of the play will not be your focus until after the show, as Karam is an excellent storyteller and director Aly B. Ettman supports that terrifically with a lively pace.

Ettman has gathered four strong actors, all of whom are newcomers to Peter’s Alley. The play has singing, accompanied by Diwata’s Casio keyboard, which repeats the three chords that Diwata knows. The three teens sound great, maybe better than they should, but the final number they dance and sing is a showstopper.

The bare-bones set designed by Dan Remmers, uses only a small table and chair, which are brought out once to serve as a pizza parlor. The two columns which frame the stage at Theatre on the Run have been randomly crisscrossed with multi-colored duct tape, a design style that feels right for the age of the three main characters. The stage area is entirely open and the large projection screen upstage provides the backdrop for the quick-changing scenes. Projection Designer Jon Roberts provides interesting backdrops, first appearing as photos of the place setting and quickly morphing into abstractions of the photos. This kept the audience from focusing on details, provided a generic feel of a place, and allowed for split screens to indicate multiple locations at once, which was brilliant.  It all makes for a fun show to watch and a delightful evening.

Running Time: 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Speech and Debate, written by Stephen Karam, is produced by Peter’s Alley at Theatre on the Run in Arlington and runs through March 18. Purchase tickets at the door, or go online.