Stray Cat Theatre’s “Speech & Debate” Smells Like Teen Angst

The irony in the failure of Stray Cat Theatre's current production of Speech & Debate is that it falls short largely because its lead actors are so adept at playing infuriating teenagers. After close to two hours of hand-wringing and anguish from Stephen Karam's trio of peculiar pubescents, their audience is not so much entertained as exhausted. I was, anyway.

In this comedy with music, Karam is scanning the horizon between adulthood and late adolescence in a story about a trio of misfit teens who form — or are made to form by one of their more forceful members — a speech and debate club. These are kids whose social identities are hopeless, and who have commenced the inevitable search for their sexual identities. There's Howie (Eric Boudreau), a swishy gay senior who picks up older guys on Internet chat lines; and Solomon (Nathaniel Dobson), a school newspaper reporter who's obsessed with unveiling the hypocrisy of grown men who obscure their sexuality while hooking up with teenage boys; and Diwata (Jannese Davidson), a cafe waitress who wants to be an actress but who keeps getting passed over for leads in her high school plays. The three oddballs are connected in various ways by a drama teacher we never meet; once they come together, they're a triumvirate of teen angst whose single-mindedness and high spirits make for a nice (if overlong) look at a social class we've all seen too many times before, and usually in a more engaging way.

There's enough social commentary crammed into Speech & Debate for seven plays. There are bits about how kids don't interact with the real world, preferring to Google subjects rather than discuss them with their parents and presenting their true selves on Internet vlogs rather than in person. There are repeated reminders about the hypocrisy of the adult world. And there's the fact that the story is set in Salem, Oregon, where our heroine is obsessed with Arthur Miller's The Crucible, allowing Karam a series of rather unsubtle comparisons between the Salem witch hunts and the endless attempts by his characters to unveil one another's misdeeds.

The production isn't entirely unlikable; it's just that there's so much of it. Still, many moments shine. In one scene, Solomon's teacher suggests that the focus of his proposed article about politicians and gay sex is unfair, that Republicans have sex scandals too; he replies, "Yeah, but people expect that kind of behavior from Democrats." And the musical theater sequence, depicting a gay teenage Abraham Lincoln and a time-traveling Mary Warren (heroine of Miller's The Crucible) rapping and dancing and waving their best jazz hands, is hilarious.

Director Ron May has allowed his younger cast to create characters who are each in a constant dither. It's an honest choice in a story about teens in turmoil, but after awhile it's arduous, rather than fun, watching them exclaim and fret. There isn't much for Katie McFadzen to do with a pair of roles: a frazzled high school teacher and, later, a reporter for a weekly city paper who reads her columns on the local NPR affiliate (preposterous — who ever heard of such a thing?). But at least she, in her two scenes, provides a refreshing calm in what amounts to a rather disappointing storm.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela