It's hard not to like Speech and Debate (at left), the new "gay play" at the Lyric, even though it's pitched by director Jeremy Johnson at something close to a scream. (Other critics have found the shouting match "irresistibly energizing." Whatever.) Stephen Karam's script doesn't exactly sparkle with originality, either; it's essentially a long-form gay episode of Freaks and Geeks.
Still, the show grows on you, largely because the performers, though vocally over the top, still connect at a gut level with their characters, and one another. And playwright Karam does have an insider's sense of how much a safe haven can mean to a gay teen, and conjures just such an emotional harbor in the Speech and Debate Club at the center of his script.
The comedy gets most of its kick, however, from the fact that each of the three misfits in this forensic clubhouse is there for a different reason. Passionate, talent-free Diwata (Rachael Hunt) is trying to turn it into a showcase for her Wicked-like, but not wicked-good, musical (based on The Crucible, no less); tightly-wound Solomon (Alex Wyse) hopes to use it as a platform to blow open a possible sex-abuse scandal; meanwhile lonely Howie (Chris Conner), the one with the dirt on the school's drama teacher, is always on the verge of just wanting out. It's a nice set-up, but I'm afraid at first the antics feel slightly forced, and hilarity refuses to ensue; still, eventually it shows its face here and there - particularly in Diwata's wacky showpiece with a too-gay Abe Lincoln. And at the same time, a back story unfolds behind Solomon (the poor kid is in between stints at an "ex-gay" camp) that gives a poignant pull to his desperate self-denial. By the time all hell breaks loose in the Big Competition, the actors have somehow found a touching camaraderie beneath the production's slightly strained surface.
Probably the standout of the able cast is Rachael Hunt, who throws herself with utter abandon into the role of Diwata, but lands every broad stroke with surprising emotional precision. Chris Conner likewise nails out-but-not-quite-proud Howie, particularly in his self-consciously coiled body language. Alex Wyse is perhaps the shrillest of the three, but still manages to touch us once Solomon's tortured home life is revealed. And the reliable Maureen Keiller may not find much that's individual in her first role as an exasperated teacher, but evinces an amusingly breezy poise in her second appearance as a local reporter. Like most everyone else in the adult world, she has no idea what's been going on behind the closed doors of Speech and Debate.