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Speech and Debate dramatizes high school witch hunt

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Theatre in the Square's Speech & Debate depicts high schoolers in Salem, Ore., who frequently draw comparisons to the Salem, Mass., witch hunts when they discuss censorship or other forms of public persecution. In real life, America's teens in towns named Salem doubtless play that overly dramatic card every chance they get, too.

Speech & Debate playwright Stephen Karam appreciates the complexities of the teenage experience, and the many ways young people can be at once wise and naïve, experienced and immature. Karam knows how kids interact in an age of Googling and instant messaging. Speech & Debate has the promising premise of a high school sex scandal juxtaposed with a laughable, musical version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. The script proves surprisingly convoluted, however, and the production at Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage, directed by Clint Thornton, struggles to keep it clear. Speech & Debate feels like a play caught in that adolescent awkward stage.

Three students begin the play as strangers but gradually become unlikely friends, almost reminiscent of The Breakfast Club. Howie (Jeremy Ledbetter), who's been openly gay since age 10, cruises the Internet for possible hook-ups. School reporter Solomon (Nick Arapoglou) strives to write controversial stories but butts against the opposition of school authority figures. Theater geek Diwata (Maria Sager) vents on her live, musical podcasts that the drama teacher doesn't appreciate her talent.

The threesome comes together with the formation of the school's new Speech & Debate team, but all in pursuit of his or her own agenda. None of the characters turns out to be particularly interested in debate, not even Katherine Nora LeRoy as a grown-up reporter who writes about them. Even the playwright doesn't seem to care much about debate. Though Karam's script nods to that irony, the play's insistence on the debate team plot point and its use of forensic terminology makes the action more complicated than it needs to be. Speech & Debate also tends to throw out more ideas than it knows what to do with, including an unplanned pregnancy.

With her kooky behavior and self-aggrandizing speeches, Diwata resembles one of the adolescent comic creations of Gilda Radner or Lily Tomlin, but Sager's madcap comedy seems out of sync with the other roles' more realistic approaches. At the heart of the play, Arapoglou affectingly plays a young man tied in knots by school pressures, personal ambitions, and deeply suppressed secrets. In a play marked by unfocused arguments, the persuasiveness of Arapoglou's characterization invites little debate.

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