"Oh, we're back in school," said one adult immediately upon entering the Lyric theater.
As this woman's reaction suggests, the set is so familiar that it is impossible for anyone above the age of five not to guess where iSpeech and Debate/i takes place.
It is an exact replica of a standard school classroom, right down to the pencils protruding from the ceiling, the cheap plastic chairs and desks, the awkward linoleum floor patterns that provide a merciful distraction to bored students. No diversions are necessary, though, for this play, which engrosses from start to finish.
iSpeech and Debate/i, a dark comedy that follows the unlikely partnership of three misfits as they try to make themselves heard in a community that doesn't want to listen, bursts into the Lyric Stage Company in its Boston debut, playing until April 25.
While tackling more serious issues of sexuality, homophobia and the struggle to be recognized, iSpeech and Debate/i uses quick-paced dialogue and humor to avoid being too sappy.
Director and Emerson alum Jeremy Johnson said in an audience talk-back that he hoped the pacing would keep the play from becoming too sentimental.
"This play's gotta go fast. It's gotta move," he said, adding only a few weeks prior, the show had felt too angsty and "after-school-special-y" because of its drawn-out delivery.
By quickening the pace of the show, the company was able to keep the lines while also avoiding wallowing in melodrama.
In present-day Salem, Ore., three teens come together via the inception of their high school's Speech and Debate Team (of which they are the only members). None of them really care about the team itself, but each has his or her own agenda.
Diwata (Rachael Hunt), an aspiring actress, wants to use it as a platform for her performance skills, whereas overeager, preppy journalist Solomon (Alex Wyse) is chasing a controversial story and a place to publish it.
Openly gay Howie (Chris Conner), the new kid at school, just wants to make it through his senior year with his dignity intact. Unfortunately, he promised Diwata he would join in return for a bit of juicy gossip on Solomon.
Rumors that spread via the trio's involvement with Internet chat sites and blogs actually help bring them out of their isolation. Solomon, trying to investigate the connections between his conservative mayor's illicit relationships with young boys to similar acts by Republican politicians, stumbles across Diwata's personal podcast blog.
She insinuates that she knows some related information about their drama teacher, whom she holds a grudge against for not giving her the lead roles she feels entitled to. Howie, who has dirt on the teacher as well, comments on her blog. Thus Solomon finds Howie-and the investigation begins, though it becomes more personal than any of them counted on.
The play's physicality is striking, and it helps keep the momentum lively and dramatic. The actors are constantly in motion as they interact with each other or, in Hunt's case, perform podcasts alone. Johnson feels that level of kinetic energy from the actors went well with the subject matter.
"There are a lot of issues going on, but I wouldn't say it's a cerebral play," he says. "They're high on emotion. It makes sense that their bodies are all over the place in this."
The actors said the play's physical language came largely from the rehearsals as they worked together. Conner said the Author's Note at the beginning of the play (or, the "disclaimer," as he called it) told them not to merely imitate the gay kid or the teenager and to look to the lines for their cues.
"Over time and with a lot of frustration, we started to find how it weaves together. Maybe," he added after a pause, "or maybe not."
He doesn't have to worry: overall, they have gotten the play's characters right. Hunt and Conner are especially excellent in their roles. They carry the play-Hunt with her no-holds-barred melodramatic gusto and Conner with his biting lines and perfect timing. Wyse, though good, doesn't have the same magnetic quality as the other two, perhaps because his character is by nature more straight-laced and awkward.
One note for debaters out there: This is not a play about a speech and debate competition, despite what the title may suggest. The speech and debate categories are merely the framework for the play. It is broken up into sections, each with the title of a speech debate style that relates to the scene.
For example, the second scene, entitled "Lincoln-Douglas Debate," follows the argument between Solomon and his teacher (Maureen Keiller) about censorship in the school paper. The frame works-but only if you understand the different categories of speech and debate. Otherwise, it's just a title during a scene change. Thankfully, the program gives a general overview for those unfamiliar with forensics.
According to Johnson, iSpeech and Debate/i, which premiered at Brown University before enjoying a successful run in New York, has been optioned to be a film. He says playwright Stephen Karam is currently working on the screenplay.
Funny and thoughtful without being too self-serious, iSpeech and Debate/i transports its audience back to that time of rebellion and angst, sexual awakening and social scrambling.
Everyone remembers high school, but don't worry: this is much more interesting-and this time, you get to be the observer.