To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘Speech and Debate’ review

“Just hold it in!” belts Mary Warren from “The Crucible” in a show-stopping number that nearly brings the house down. No, I’m not watching a musical adaptation of Arthur Miller’s classic play, I’m watching “Speech and Debate,” directed by Cole Simmons ’26 for FreePlay Theatre Cooperative. This Mary Warren isn’t concerned with witches or trials—she’s actually a time traveler who has traversed through the centuries to visit young Abraham Lincoln in order to convince him not to come out as gay to his parents. Needless to say, “Speech and Debate” is one of the most delightfully absurd plays I’ve had the pleasure of watching in a long time.

The show opens up with a brunette named Howie, played by Harvey Vostrejs ’27, happily messaging away on a Grindr-like app under the username “blondeboy.” The mysterious man on the other side asks if he’s 18. Howie says yes. The man, revealed to be in his thirties himself, asks if he’s sure. He confirms yet again. They continue to flirt away until the man asks Howie to send pictures of himself to his email. Howie’s eyes widen in surprise. It’s the email of his high school’s drama teacher, Mr. Healy!

Our two other protagonists have problems of their own. Diwata, played by Emma Sadewasser ’27, is a quirky theater kid with a grudge of her own to bear against Mr. Healy for only giving her featured ensemble in the school musical. Rejecting her paltry role, she starts the speech and debate team in order to be given a platform to act. Unfortunately for her, no one else seems interested in joining. Solomon, played by Garrett Molinari ’26, is a slightly neurotic aspiring journalist from a Catholic family who has somehow gotten ahold of the messages between Mr. Healy and Howie. Determined to expose Mr. Healy, Solomon first tries to publish his findings in the school newspaper but is rejected. Unable to find a platform anywhere else, he decides to present his story as part of Diwata’s speech and debate team.

Through a series of circumstances and quasi-blackmails, our three protagonists are brought together into a team and a not-quite found family. This show is often silly—in addition to the time traveling/Crucible/gay Abraham Lincoln musical number, there’s a scene where the characters strip down into nude body stockings with drawn-on nipples while dancing to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” However, “Speech and Debate” is also not afraid to handle some extremely dark topics. Diwata admits to having gotten an abortion after an awkward sexual encounter with a guy who later regretted ever sleeping with her. It’s also slowly revealed that the reason Solomon is so determined to expose Mr. Healy as a predator is because Solomon himself had been hurt by him. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the show, Solomon explains that when he had told his parents what had happened, they just sent him away to conversion therapy. Shortly after, he vomits into a trash can in distress at his own admission.

For a show containing such heavy subjects alongside zany humor, it would be all too easy for it to seem gauche and offensive. For the most part, that is avoided. One of the strengths of the script is its ability to tell much of its story through implication, rather than beating the audience over the head with the suffering and exploitation of its teenage protagonists. The actors also do a wonderful job of handling both the comedic and dramatic elements of the script, easing the sometimes-violent shifts between genres. Occasionally, though, the wise-cracking can feel out-of-place and unrealistically cruel. There’s one point in particular where, just after Solomon’s sexual abuse is revealed, Diwata and Howie almost immediately start making jokes. The intention seemed to be to diffuse tension, but instead it took me completely out of the story.

While the characters, dialogue, and humor are generally all top-notch, the main weakness of “Speech and Debate” is in its plot. The pacing is strange and some plot points feel contrived, but none are major issues. The big problem is that despite the fact that the show revolves around a sexual abuse scandal, the final scene never addresses what happened to Mr. Healy. If Solomon’s argument had simply been dismissed, that would have been unfortunate, though sadly all too realistic. But we didn’t even get that! It left me quite shocked when the actors came on for bows. I had to wonder: “is that all?”

Part of my disappointment at the ending must have also had to do with my desire to spend more time watching the incredible acting on display. Lelu Branch ’26 did a lovely job playing a variety of minor characters, moving like a chameleon between her different roles. Vostrejs played a perfect plucky asshole with his own hidden depths and insecurities. Molinari proved himself an incredible dramatic actor, who while comfortable in the comedic scenes, absolutely shone in the darker moments when his eccentric mask is finally lifted to reveal his underlying pain and hurt. Finally, Sadewasser was a particular standout, providing much-needed comedic relief in the midst of a plot that would otherwise feel oppressively dark. It would have been all too easy for even an excellent actor to be swallowed up by the larger-than-life role of Diwata, but Sadewasser took the challenge in stride and made the character her own. Sadewasser’s Diwata, while strange and unlike anyone I’ve ever met before, was utterly convincing. Best of all, I could feel as an audience member that each and every cast member was having a blast on stage, and truly loved the show they were working on.

The multimedia elements of the show (using a projector to display images and chat messages), while occasionally clunky, serve to provide a lot of visual engagement towards a show that would otherwise mostly consist of two or three people standing around. The direction, while solid throughout, really soars when it comes to the more absurd elements of the play, especially those involving music. The camp is dialed up to eleven and it is glorious. However, the space in which “Speech and Debate” was performed, Chums, did not totally lend itself to this show’s vision. All actors had to enter and exit from a single side, as the “backstage” was merely a curtain hung up next to the stage, and sunlight shining in from uncovered windows made blackouts impossible during a matinee performance. It’s essential to note, though, that Chums is a notoriously difficult space to direct in, and I was really impressed by what the production staff were able to pull off.

Overall, “Speech and Debate” was a highly enjoyable black comedy experience. The script, while it had some flaws, was a strong choice that was made even stronger by talented direction and acting. As one of the first shows FreePlay has put on in some time, this is a wonderful reintroduction to what their club is capable of. All I can say is: I can’t wait to see what they do next!

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