SPEECH & DEBATE by Stephen Karam Book Review – Coming of age

SPEECH & DEBATE book cover Photo courtesy of Theatre Communications Group

A multi-level play with three lead actors.

Speech & Debate, published by Theatre Communications Group, is a multi-level comedy about a tragedy. This is the script of a play in book form.  It is not a play; it is not a novel; it is an opportunity to explore.  The three leads are in high school, 17 – 18 years old—old enough to know about sex and perversion, and still childish enough to think they can wrestle successfully with this problem. 

The plot involves three bumbling, but passionate teens, Solomon, Diwata and Howie.  Diwata is a frustrated musical star wrangling for a stage and audience.  She pressures Howie and Solomon to join their school’s new Speech and Debate club, her platform. Howie is a frustrated reporter, obsessed with exposing closeted authority figures.  Solomon is newly out and proud, but conflicted by nearly exposing himself to one of the authority figures on Howie’s radar.  The plot springs from the trio’s frustrating encounters with the adult teacher and a reporter, and from the differing goals of the three leads.  As the scenes proceed, there is less humor and more tension, culminating at the end in a full song and dance number to George Michael’s “Freedom”. 

Read vs Watch Speech & Debate

Stephen Karem’s subtle wordsmithing comes across through the book.  There are twelve scenes in the play. 

The scene titles are the headings used to identify debate types in competition:  Scene Two: Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Scene 6: Cross-Examination Debate, Scene 11: Student Congress.  These types of debates are described in grueling detail in high school debate club handbooks.  And the flow of each scene follows somewhat the rules of debate for the scene title.  You would not know this while seeing the play unless you were intimate with speech and debate rules.  So, score one for reading the play—you have time to research the writer’s craft.

Staging is usually lost in the reading of a play.  Consider Scene One: Poetry Reading.  There are no spoken words.  A projected video screen shows the content of a suggestive chat between an 18-year-old blonde male (BlBoi) and an unseen middle-aged man (BiGuy).  The suggestion is sex, the chat is often funny, often tentative.  What we cannot truly appreciate reading is that the video chat is set to the four-and-a-half-minute score of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”.  The majestic music foretells the importance of this conversation and it sets the tension for the following eleven scenes. 

As the reader of a play, you can experience the action from the POV (point of view) of the director, seeing how you would guide the action.  You can experience the play from the POV of one of the actors, creating in your mind the motivation for the character.  

Author of SPEECH & DEBATE Stephen Karam Photo: Martin Bentson

But it is only scaffolding.  “The play is the thing”, says Wm. Shakespeare.  And it won’t be a play until it is staged.

The Chicago history of Speech & Debate

On a Chicago note, Speech & Debate made its regional debut at the American Theater Company in 2008, directed by the late PJ Paparelli.  In 2013, ATC again produced the play and Paparelli directed.  Both were smash hits.  A movie derived from the play premiered in April 2017.  It had a limited release.  You can watch it on Netflix and other streaming services. 

 IMHO, reading Speech & Debate, or any play, is not light, escapist reading.  For a theater fan who wants to look beyond the staged package and into the construction of the play’s effect, reading this play is an interesting intellectual challenge. 

Published by Theatre Communications Group, 2017

Available at Theatre Communications Group Bookstore.

Photos courtesy of Theatre Communications Group, unless otherwise indicated

Reviewed by Ann Boland

Ann Boland
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