Dark comedies come in a thousand flavors. And when you sit down to a newer one, you may have no idea of the nature of the darkness or where the humor in it will be found. Brown Paper Box Co.’s Speech & Debate, now playing at the Edge Theater on Broadway, proved to be one of the best examples of mixing darkness and light. Written by the extremely gifted young playwright, Stephen Karam, who carried home a Tony last year for another of his play’s, we’re reminded that coming of age, from the time of the caveman to now, isn’t necessarily the easiest of passages. Especially if you’re different.
Karam’s definition of misfit is joyfully much more elegant and nuanced than any contemporary dictionary’s. Here he shows us that they can be and often are blazingly bright, mesmerizingly poignant and flat out funny.
Speech & Debate kneads you into the lives of three fascinating high school kids grappling with some very serious issues. Issues that may very well prove to be primary determinants of their futures. They’re revealed to us in stages. First, we notice their keen intelligence. Then we discover how fearlessly they seem to resist convention. Later, we’re slightly surprised to see how much they defer to those same conventions.
Diwata (Deanalís Resto) becomes the energy force that so beautifully drives the production. Before she arrives on stage, we get an over the shoulder glimpse of another one of the three, Howie (Trevor Bates); in a scintillatingly suggestive texting spree with an older man online. And we’re also rather explosively introduced to Solomon (Darren Patin); a precocious, socially awkward student reporter out to expose hypocrisy. They all prove to be relentless personalities who pursue their individual truths with dogged resolve. That it all appears so unconscious is all the more impressive.
An aspiring actress who posts her theatrical proclivities on her blog, sometimes while drunk, Diwata is wildly appealing. She has the confidence of Muhammed Ali in an America Ferrara chassis. What she may lack in talent, she more than makes up for in passion. Passed over time and again for school productions, the drama teacher becomes her arch-enemy, her nemesis with a “receding hairline” and a dangerous secret who we never meet. It’s her antipathy for him that morphs into the link that brings the three teens together as conspirators and unlikely friends.
Brown Paper Box Co. merits recognition for so well living up to its mission of creating “challenging and inspiring theater that focuses on the text”. As young and kinetic as Speech & Debate is, it’s the language and personalities that make it both memorable and wonderful. The stage is quite bare save for a few classic classroom desks like those found in 99% of the high schools across the country. Beyond that, some very spare and effective projections onto the back wall give additional context to the progression of the story. Virtually nothing interferes with the power of the spoken word or the craftsmanship needed to deliver it effectively.
Not only was the story quintessentially current and reflective of a world where our private lives, with a few well thought out clicks of a mouse, are easily discovered and exposed; it flowed with a perfectly plausible rhythm.
Self-awareness and self-acceptance bloom at different stages in different lives. Maturity is allowing one another the space for the transformation to happen. In Speech & Debate, these young misfits give the world a lesson in doing it right.
Deanalís Resto’s Diwata is one of a kind. Darren Patten’s Solomon kept you guessing if he would ever get beyond his fear of himself to self-actualize and Trevor Bates’ Howie was a case study in innate teenage cool. One can hardly wait to see how each of these very talented actors will transform themselves in future projects.
Speech & Debate
February 2 – March 4, 2018
Brown Paper Box Co.
5451 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60640