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Loose Talk 

How do you make a phone call? You pick up a hefty black earpiece and dial a number on a hefty black stand. You can't take pictures with this device. Furthermore, it's a party line. Strangers share the line and can be heard listening in.

I'm showing my age. But I bring this up apropos of Southern Rep's excellent production of Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate. The play is about high school today, and while the high school in question is not the sort with a metal detector at the door, some things about scandal and high school social mores never change.

Speech & Debate is set in Salem, Ore., and one of the first scenes shows us Howie (Sean Knapp) engaging in an Internet flirtation. The communication has a homosexual edge to it and even an illicit aura. There's something creepy about the mixture of intimacy and anonymity as the two men use pseudonyms to arrange a tryst. That sort of creepiness haunts this often funny and at times high-spirited play, which has some bouncy songs and one big comic dance number that brings the house down.

The next scene takes us to a classroom doubling as the office of the high school newspaper. The student editor, Solomon (Sean Glazebrook), is having fits because the faculty advisor (Liann Pattison) insists on sticking to a policy of not printing anything controversial, especially about subjects like abortion or sex scandals involving cultural conservatives " like the town's mayor getting caught with young boys.

'But isn't that the whole point of a newspaper?" asks Solomon, who aims a hand-held recorder at the teacher when the subject of the mayor comes up. Finally, Solomon gives in to the teacher's prodding and goes grudgingly to the school's Speech and Debate Society, where we meet Diwata (Natalie Boyd), a delightful firebrand. Howie also turns up, and that seems to constitute the full group.

Diwata is on the lam from her true calling in much the same way Solomon is. She considers herself an actress and singer. She tried out for the school production of The Crucible but didn't get a part. Then she was passed over for Once Upon a Mattress. She feels mistreated and unappreciated. At one point, she laments 'I'm a double minority: a woman and a Filipino!" Diwata belts out her woes accompanied by a Cassio keyboard programmed to play the same three chords over and over.

Various narrative detours take on personal meanings, like the fact that both Howie and Solomon entered a short story contest and Howie scored higher than Solomon, who prides himself on his writing.

Howie's story is about a teen who can visit the past and meets the biblical Cain. 'Cain is like totally put off by how queenly the time-traveler kid is." The implication is that Cain killed Abel because he was gay. Sexual proclivity and the dangers accompanying same-sex love are big issues in North Salem High.

Things heat up when Diwata goes into a men's room because it's empty and she's in a rush. Into the next stall come Solomon and Mr. Healy, the school's drama teacher, intent on doing some risqué deeds.

Later, back in the classroom, Solomon and Howie have at each other with insults and barbs. Howie taunts Solomon for his Lacoste shirts " so straight and square. But Howie came out when he was 10 years old. He couldn't hide his predilection if he wanted to.

Finally, Diwata confronts Solomon about his secret life. Solomon is floored and vomits into a wastepaper basket. Will he come out? Will he be outed? How is he different from the cultural conservatives he rails against?

Director Aimée Hayes has gathered a remarkable cast and elicited plausible, entertaining performances. Boyd, Knapp and Glazebrook are a buoyant trio of young knockabouts. Speech & Debate is the first show of Southern Rep's 22nd season. The theater shows a steadily growing confidence. It continues to provide top-notch productions of contemporary plays that challenge and entertain.

click to enlarge Diwata broadcasts onto the Internet in Speech & Debate - JOHN BARROIS
  • John Barrois
  • Diwata broadcasts onto the Internet in Speech & Debate
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