By Robert Bethune
How do you play an awkward teenager without coming off as, well, an awkward teenager? That’s the acting problem confronting the young cast of the UDM Theatre Company’s production of “Speech & Debate,” by Stephen Karam.
The story concerns three high schoolers, Diwata (played by Anne Di Iorio,) Solomon (Steven Ploe) and Howie (Joel Frazee). Solomon is a budding journalist, hot on getting the dirt on either the town mayor, the principal of the high school, or both, for “personal indiscretions” (as the White House Web site says about Clinton) with young people of the same gender. He gets tied up with two other students. One, Diwata, is trying to use his material to start a speech and debate group. The other, Howie, is a gay student who seems to have more dirt to dish on the principal. As events unfold, a reporter (Mary Bremer) uses the story to plug her own book on NPR, much to the disgust of our three.
Now and again, one runs into a production where everybody seems to be doing the right stuff, but it just will not come to life. So it is with this show. Under Yolanda Fleischer’s direction, the young cast makes the awkward teenagers awkward enough, and there are certainly funny moments in the show. Yet somehow, the vital connection between actors and characters never quite happens. We wind up characters talking at each other and past each other rather than TO each other. Part of the blame for that is Karam’s writing. Another part of the problem is the extremely simplified setting by Melinda Pacha, which doesn’t provide Fleischer with nearly enough ways to use movement and business for effect and variety. She breaks free of it for one comical quasi-strip-tease scene – the funniest scene – but only temporarily. The combination, unfortunately, adds up to a pleasant, but not genuinely satisfactory evening.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
‘Speech and Debate’
UDM Theatre Company, Marygrove Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit. Fri.-Sun. through Feb. 15. Tickets: $13-$15. For information: 313-993-3270 or http://theatre.udmercy.edu