While savoring the endless felicities of Dobama Theatre's production of Speech & Debate, we could intuit as an extra little gift the ghostly satisfaction of the theater's founders, Don and Marilyn Bianchi. Such a freshly served-up slice of thought-provoking theatrical ambrosia is the very raison d'etre for this Cleveland institution.
Stephen Karam's 2006 charmer about high-school anarchy premiered at the Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theatre. It's the sort of archetypal bubblegum passion play that delights legions of Turner Classic Movie devotees. Its misfit teenagers — by turns sassy, irreverent and insecure — find innumerable ways of wisecracking their way out of mayhem.
Like the theater ghosts that haunt Stephen Sondheim's Follies, the play's three precocious sprites are trailed by shades of teenage heroes past, like Judy Garland's plump wannabe star. But Karam doesn't settle for stale retreads. He's not dealing with love at the malt shop or jitterbugging at the prom. Instead, he puts his three heroes — two gay guys and a gal — into a world as scary and current as Facebook. Karam perilously navigates his teenagers through sexual hookups on the Internet, visits to the abortion clinic and gay empowerment.
The work's greatest strength is its unpredictability. Starting out with an Internet encounter as dark as anything in the world of David Mamet, the play suddenly veers off into Preston Sturges screwball comedy, and then careens into student and teacher fights over the school newspaper that could have been lifted from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
In the manner of all great subversive comedy, Karam skews and juggles morality with the ease of a circus acrobat. The work is loaded with enough unsavory intentions to fill a film noir, including sexual assignations between student and teacher in the men's room.
The kids apply blackmail with the regularity that other teens apply acne cream. There are offstage fractured families and homophobia. And yet, through miraculous manipulations, daffy dialogue and a generosity of spirit, the play ultimately leaves an impression as sweet and winning as a 1950s Bosco commercial.
The Dobama cast is so right — the teenagers (Nick Pankuch, Nicholas Varricchio, Shelby Bartelstein) so genuinely adolescent, the school teacher and reporter (Elizabeth Ann Townsend) so Warner Bros. piquant — it is impeccable. And director Scott Plate has discovered through them the essence of humane bravado.
Speech & Debate is the perfect example of why terrific live theater at hand is worth two NetFlix rentals in the DVD player.