Timely topics, laughs in ‘Speech & Debate’ 

Juicy, up-to-the-minute themes, humor and vibrant youthfulness characterize “Speech & Debate,” the local premiere of Stephen Karam’s comedy onstage at Aurora Theatre Co. in Berkeley.

Directed with perhaps a little too much glee by Robin Stanton (some observers have compared this play with the popular TV show of the same name), “Speech & Debate” describes what happens when three high school kids in Salem, Ore. – an openly gay guy, a weird drama girl and a zealous newspaper reporter – join forces on the school’s burgeoning speech and debate club.

The trio seems to come together out of necessity when Solomon, the earnest journalist, wants to write a story about the town’s mayor, a conservative Republican accused of having sex with teen boys.

His efforts are thwarted by his teacher, who tells him to join the new speech and debate team.

The group is headed up by Diwata, a free musical theater spirit and active blogger who’s been spurned by the school’s drama teacher in her quest for a plum – or any – role. But she knows that the teacher has got a liaison of sorts going with a gay classmate.

That happens to be Howie, whose provocative online communications (they’re flashed on a screen as Howie types away on a laptop) provide the show’s opening, and come to the attention of the sleuthing Solomon.

The problem with the kids’ journey is that it feels forced, despite particularly lively performances by Jason Frank as the serious Solomon, Jayne Deely as the wacky Diwata and Maro Guevara as the securely out Howie.

They’re just a little too glib, and a little too steadfastly focused in their individual pursuits so that the reasons behind their alliance don’t really register; they don’t seem heartfelt.

Still, the teens also manage to be solidly entertaining and often funny in their quest for truth and justice.

Karam’s knack for the quirky proves both a strength and weakness. While the cute and clever factor slightly saps emotion, it’s also the show’s best quality.

Among the priceless moments are Diwata’s musical version of “The Crucible”, Howie’s gay-influenced Cain and Abel tale, and the trio’s interpretive dance, complete with flesh-colored body stocking costumes.

Speech & Debate

Presented by Aurora Theatre Co.

Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes July 18
Tickets: $34 to $55
Contact: (510) 843-4822 or www.auroratheatre.org

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Leslie Katz

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