An endearing mash-up of "The Crucible," "Schoolhouse Rock" and "High School Musical," Stephen Karam's "Speech and Debate" has all the virtues of youth: irreverence, smarts, a slight lack of specificity and more innocence than it imagines.
Karam's musical comedy attracted some heat in New York, and its West Coast premiere last week at the Blank Theatre Company, under the giddy direction of Daniel Henning, is a welcome excuse to celebrate the burgeoning charms of Mae Whitman.
Like "Juno," the story follows kids too savvy for their provincial surroundings -- in this case, Salem, Ore., where genitalia are referred to as "bathing suit areas." The illicit shenanigans of the school's drama teacher lead three students into an unlikely alliance: Diwata (Whitman), a "Wicked" groupie and fervent blogger; Howie ("Joan of Arcadia's" Michael Welch), out but alienated; and Soloman (Aaron Himelstein), a nerdy school reporter who'd rather investigate anything but his own urges. Their combined knowledge -- a kind of cyber Shazam ring -- results in a plot to reveal the teacher's secret under the guise of a speech and debate team presentation.
Played out on Ian P. Garrett's Minimalist set of plastic chairs and dusty AV equipment, "Speech" has a slightly sketch vibe. Karam offers plenty of underage pique, but his central conceit -- each scene is labeled on TV screens with a different forensics category (e.g., dramatic/humorous interpretation) -- doesn't completely land, and the play is longer than its emotional arcs.
Still, "Speech" is a spiffy platform for the winning cast (which includes Del Shores' treasure Dale Dickey, in two underwritten roles). Welch and Himelstein make for a nice contrast in awkward knights-errant, and they both know how to make silence tell a story (although their unbridled tribute to George Michael is one of the evening's high points).
But the unqualified star of the evening is Whitman. With her tiny body and inflated cheeks, she gives the production its buoyant life. Pushy, desperate and literally hands on, she's a Helen Keller of emotional space, constantly busting into people's privacy to get what she wants. Henning lets her go over the top a few times, hammering at the play's thin spots when she'd do better just to brush by them. But Whitman is the real thing: Thrift-shop heretic and fizzy chorus girl, sloe-eyed and daffy, vamp and goofball, her contradictions pull against each other in endlessly watchable ways. I kept thinking of "Midsummer's" Hermia --"though she be but little, she is fierce." Go see her before she becomes too famous.
"Speech and Debate," the Blank Second Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct 26. $22-$28. (323) 661-9827. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
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