Speech & Debate is the title of Stephen Karam's widely produced play from 2007, and Bricolage Theatre Company gives us a chance to see why it is often praised. It has solid, multilevel substance dealing with significant themes and believable characters.
It also has the potential to be warmly, compassionately funny, although you may not be able to see that clearly this time. Despite earnest, convincing sincerity in two of the three main roles, the performance of the third throws the whole thing off; director Jeffrey Carpenter never should have let that happen.
The focus is on the anxieties and confusions of high school students struggling with who and what they are, while also spinning around the idea of influential, hypocritical, secretly gay men. These kids sprout all kinds of goofy ideas and come together to form a speech-and-debate club. Also on their minds are questions about exposing a teacher preying on male students.
Cleverly, Karam sets this in Salem, Ore., and inserts dialogue from The Crucible, Arthur Miller's depiction of colonial America's notorious witch trials. Moreover, Karam makes it clear that adults still hold power over these contemporary young people.
The play begins with openly gay Howie eagerly agreeing to online propositions from that easily identified teacher. This leads nerdy, Web-wise Solomon to investigate for the school newspaper, fueled by his own obsession with the town's politically conservative mayor, who also has been coming on to teen-age boys. Meanwhile, Diwata, ambitious to become the school's drama queen, podcasts these secrets as well as some about herself, evidently clueless that her revelations have become public.
Karam has written Howie especially well, making him secure about being out, even if he's still learning whom to trust. Paul Victor's solid take on the role keeps Howie sweetly, and vulnerably, youthful. Matt Henderson's Solomon also remains entirely convincing, scrunched-up, whining, struggling to be the man he isn't. By contrast, as Diwata, the most out-of-touch with reality and potentially the funniest of this trio, Laura Melchiorre pushes every line and every gesture. She shouts and races through her words, overriding any suggestion of a genuine and potentially sympathetic adolescent. While Victor and Henderson look and sound like real people of that age, she's doing shtick.
At an opening-weekend performance, it was clear that the audience was having a good time, laughing heartily and often, consistent with reviewers' reactions to this play elsewhere. I wish I could have had that response.
Speech & Debate continues through May 8. Bricolage Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-381-6999 or www.webbricolage.org