The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings

A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Speech and Debate

By Ariana Mufson

People in Salem are pretty open-minded. —Solomon

People in Salem are straight. I don't know, I'm new here, I grew up in Portland, but. . .people here think they're liberal, but most are like liberal Puritans. . .— Howie

Speech and Debate
Aaron Himelstein, Michael Welch and Mae Whitman in The Blank Theatre Company Production of Speech and Debate.
After opening last fall in New York and initiating the Roundabout Theatre Company's small black box space, Stephen Karam's Speech and Debate makes its West Coast Premiere at the Blank Theatre Company in Hollywood. Karam, a graduate of Brown University, had his first play performed at the Blank at 17 and has since garnered many accolades for his work. If Speech and Debate is any indication, they are well deserved, and the Blank's engaging production should earn him many new fans.

The play centers on three teenagers—Diwata (Mae Whitman), Solomon (Aaron Himelstein), and Howie (Michael Welch)— coming of age in Salem, Oregon. Howie describes the town's constituents as "liberal Puritans". Everyone has a secret — and it is this hypocrisy that serves as a theme throughout.

The three kids converse frankly about the taboo topics that their teachers and parents have indicated as off limits. While Diwata blogs about inappropriate teacher/student relations, Solomon tries (unsuccessfully) to convince the school paper to let him tackle the mayor's sex scandals with children. Howie, meanwhile, wants to start a gay/straight alliance, which is difficult to do without a faculty advisor who will agree to sponsor the club. Eventually, an unlikely friendship triangle forms, and together they bring to light some startling truths about what is really going on in Salem. As Diwata repeats several times, "Are we in Salem, Oregon or Salem, Massachusetts circa sixteen-twenty-whenever-those-witches-were-bein-hunted?"

After she fails to win the lead in the school musical, Diwata's main objective is to form a speech and debate club. But despite its title, the play has less to do with speech and debate than with free speech. The play evolves through short scenes preceded by clever headings denoting the form of debate to which the scene relates. Although this parallel could be pushed further to add more resonance, as a whole the club's rehearsals are hilarious. An unexpected dance sequence in particular is a highlight.

Despite the heavy topics, Karam and director Daniel Henning manage to keep the humor spot on. The staging and production design are top notch, transforming the Blank's small space into multiple levels. The play is at its best when the scenes are short and sharp, but there is a definite lag after the first hour when the plot stops moving forward. Fortunately, everything picks up toward the end and the play has a strong finish.

The performances are uniformly strong (all three actors have extensive television and film resumes), but the standout is Michael Welch as Howie (an openly gay student). His expressions and tone are pitch perfect and underplayed. As a result, his character comes off as genuine and engaging rather than stereotypical. Mae Whitman is a powerful presence as Diwata, especially when she blogs online through her video cam with musical musings. Occasionally, her energy becomes frenetic and over-the-top, playing for laughs instead of letting the humor emerge organically, but she excels during the more serious moments, when her vulnerability and acting chops shine through. Aaron Himelstein rounds out the cast as Solomon, and some of the best scenes are between him and Welch, with overlapping dialogue and an easy rapport that makes them fun to watch.

Even as the characters come to the realization that change does not come easily to small towns, the resounding message is somewhat optimistic. It's a relief to see teenagers speak like teenagers, confronting uncomfortable and taboo situations with candor and wit. Through its biting dialogue and dark humor Speech and Debate becomes a pertinent and unique take on the high school experience—and a Blank Theatre Company must see.

Speech and Debate
Directed By: Daniel Henning
Written By: Stephen Karam
Cast: Dale Dickey, Aaron Himelstein, Michael Welch, and Mae Whitman
Production Design: Ian P. Garrett
Costume Design: Bich Vu
Sound Design: Warren Davis
Music Director: Evelyn Halus
Graphic Design: Rick Baumgartner
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission
Dates: Now through October 26, 2008. Thurs/Fri/Sat at 8pm; Sun at 2 pm
The Blank's 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. 323-661-9827
Tickets: $22 (Thurs. & Sun.), $28 (Fri. & Sat.)
Reviewed by Ariana Mufson on 9/21/08.
South Pacific  Revival
South Pacific

In the Heights
In the Heights

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide

Sweeney Todd DVD

The Broadway Theatre Archive>


©Copyright 2008, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from