January 23, 2008

Hear, hear cheers for "Speech and Debate"

Everyone is always talking about the need to get younger people to see more theater. But the folks at the Roundabout Theatre Company have clearly decided to do something about it. Last fall, they introduced Access Roundabout, an audience development program that sets aside about 2,000 tickets for people between the ages of 18 and 35 at just $20 each, and $10 seats for all first preview performances.

But cheap seats work best when there’s something on stage that people really want to see. The Roundabout has an answer for that too: Roundabout Underground, a new series that showcases the works of young playwrights in full-scale productions in the company’s new 60-seat Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, located in the basement of the Laura Pels Theatre on West 46th Street. Now, the Roundabout’s next challenge will be to find plays equal to the black box’s inaugural production, Speech & Debate, a sassy comedy about free speech, online privacy and sexual identity, written by the 27 year-old playwright Stephen Karam. Speech & Debate is smart and funny and, unlike so many plays that focus on the problems of middle-aged folks, it speaks directly to the concerns of young people. And there were lots of them in the audience the night my husband K and I saw the show.

My friend Bill had seen Speech & Debate right after it first opened, back in October, and told me I shouldn’t miss it. He also told me, which the show doesn’t advertise, that seating is open so it’s best to get there early to get a good spot. Because K and I are the kind of people who tend to arrive everywhere so early that we usually have to walk around the block to burn up some time, there were only two other people sitting in the downstairs lobby when we got there. We bought soft drinks at the lobby bar, sat at one of its round cafĂ©-style tables and people-watched as our fellow audience members arrived. The early-birds weren’t at all what we expected—mainly the same grey-heads that you see at most theaters. In fact, when the first twentysomething couple arrived, they did a double take they were so surprised to find themselves in the company of what seemed to be an AARP rally. But then just before the doors of the theater opened, the black clad, nose-pierced set began to flow in.

K and I got front row seats, which made us feel almost a part of the show, which takes place largely in high school classrooms. Speech & Debate signaled that it was different even before it started; the customary “Turn off your cell phones” announcement wasn’t spoken but appeared in laser print on the set’s blackboard—line after line of the message, written as though it were a detention room assignment.

But there is nothing punitive about the show. Speech & Debate’s plot involves three high-school misfits who meet over the internet and become involved in one another’s secrets. It’s longer than it needs to be, some speeches are overwritten and some debates just peter out but Karam’s distinctive voice emerges through it all and the performers, particularly Susan Steele, a scene-stealing dynamo who reminded me of a young Stockard Channing, keep you from wriggling restlessly in your seat. And it was really nice to see really young actors (at least one is still in college) playing young people in a play dealing with the concerns of young people. “This is the greatest play I’ve ever seen,” the young woman sitting behind me told her companion with the kind of emphatic passion that is endemic to her age. And that is just the kind of passion that the theater needs more of.

We oldsters liked it too. I’m already looking forward to Karam’s next play. This one is running through Feb. 24. Go see it if you can. Or better yet, if you know some young people between the ages of 16 and 29, buy a ticket and send them.

1 comment:

Sarah B. Roberts said...

I had a similar experience when I saw it in November. I thought that I would be the oldest 30-something there...but I was by far in the younger crowd. However, despite the fact the material was about the experience of teenagers, everybody in theatre seemed to identify with it. I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Bravo Roundabout for championing this cause.