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Review: 'Speech & Debate' at the Roundabout

BY ROB KENDT

Special to Newsday

October 30, 2007

Most off-Off-Broadway theaters are in lower Manhattan, in funky neighborhoods that teeter on the knife's edge between hip and bleak. But how about a state-of-the-art, 62-seat Black Box Theatre a stone's throw from the Great White Way and Rockefeller Center? Does that count?

Based on its premiere offering, Stephen Karam's funny, searching new play "Speech & Debate," the upstart theater tucked in a basement beneath the Laura Pels Theatre most certainly does count.

It has a big advantage, of course: It's called Roundabout Underground, and it's the latest initiative of the ever-expanding Roundabout Theatre Company, now represented on Broadway by "Pygmalion" and "The Ritz," and at the Laura Pels by "The Overwhelming."

But while this intimate show has multimedia production values most small theaters only dream of, and it's crisply directed by "Avenue Q" director Jason Moore, the best news about "Speech & Debate" is that it's a strong, rangy play that would make an impact even with half of its all-pro polish.

Karam, who last explored a real-life high school shooting spree in the blunt, haunting "columbinus" at New York Theatre Workshop, turns his attention to teenage outsiders with less lethal outlets: the school newspaper, the drama club and the speech team.

Solomon (Jason Fuchs), a doggedly earnest preppy, wants to write for the school paper about the most controversial subjects he can think of: abortion, religion, a sex scandal involving the town mayor. While reporting the latter story, Solomon stumbles on a pair of unlikely cohorts: a lanky transfer student, Howie (Gideon Glick), who claims he "came out" as gay at age 10, and Diwata (Sarah Steele), a would-be triple-threat actress who can't get cast in the school plays, though not for lack of trying.

The cast's amused chemistry seems effortless, though the hilarious, touching mini-diva Steele nearly walks away with the show. Though it lingers a few scenes too long, "Speech & Debate" beautifully nails the indirection and crossed-wire communication of teenagers bubbling over with contradictory needs and insecurities. Is it any wonder these misfits have retreated to the basement?

SPEECH & DEBATE. Written by Stephen Karam. Directed by Jason Moore. Through Dec. 16 at the Roundabout Underground, 111 W. 46th St., Manhattan. For tickets call 212-719-1300. Seen Saturday.