Although we're in the traditional dead weeks of early summer, fresh work is flourishing on Kansas City stages. That's a problem in which to luxuriate.
At the Unicorn Theatre, Speech & Debate concerns unlikely friendships among teenage outcasts — a stock situation that's given uncommon power by director Missy Koonce and her superior cast. Lauretta Pope is all dazzling tumult as a drama department also-ran working on a musical version of The Crucible. That show will never exist, but this one is hers. Delivering extravagant monologues into a webcam broadcast center stage, Pope is a comic marvel, inventing so many voices and flourishes, it's as if she were some magician teasing an endless hanky from a fist. Singing nonsense or railing against high-school injustices, she's so commanding that the show's verisimilitude suffers: Her character, Diwata, is supposed to have been denied roles in school plays. Even in godawful culottes, and with her hair pulled into pompom buns, Diwata is so obviously a star that the story makes no sense.
Doogin Brown, meanwhile, nails the agonized nervousness of a bright teen who assumes he's smarter than everyone else but still worries they might be on to his secrets. Touchingly, unless Brown's character is holding forth on the topics he has already rehearsed, his words get strangled in his throat. Tosin Morohunfola, as a young gay man courageous enough to be out and proud in a small-town high school, fuses sexual confidence with sweetness, shyness and fear.
Though I complain (lightly) that Pope's performance undermines the story, these characters and performances are much more involving than the story. Playwright Stephen Karam's long and messy script sketches out how a shy high-school newspaper reporter, sick of seeing his controversial story ideas shot down, gets roped into putting on a song-and-dance presentation to sell the school board on funding a forensics team.
That story is a mere pretense to set these characters glancing against one another, but I still wish it were better crafted. The show grinds on for two full scenes following a climax that, for all its hilarity, is hastily set up and lacks any stakes. Ultimately, Speech & Debate is like the best of high school: more about the joys of hanging out than getting anything done.
I would avoid hanging with the pimps, whores and drug dealers populating the mind of Ron Simonian, but I relish a chance to eavesdrop on them. In Desperate Times — Desperate Measures , the Kansas City playwright's latest little shocker, the men bark their world-class invective, reveling in Simonian English, that dialect of vigor and snap thoroughly fouled with only the choicest of obscenities.
Your response to the following exchange might help you gauge whether this is for you.
A garbage collector (Tom Moriarty) asks his hooker girlfriend, "How many guys you fucking today?"
Her response: "I have three scheduled. Four if your uncle shows up."
Simonian's critics have long assailed his tendency to depict women as strippers or prostitutes. Here, he rubs their noses in it, writing the hero's girlfriend as the whoriest whore who ever whored. That Simonian elicits big laughs from her nonchalance exemplifies the in-the-moment power of his writing: His audiences laugh at things they know are wrong.
A summary of this tale of schlemiels who run afoul of drug dealers would suggest any number of second-rate movies. This is more like jazz improvisation on familiar themes: What matters isn't whether the schlemiels survive their encounters with the powerful drug dealers but how those schlemiels and drug dealers surprise us as the story works itself out. Simonian knows how these stories go, and he jolts our expectations in almost every scene, stirring delight if not quite drama.
In key roles, Moriarty is appealing as a man in over his head, and, as his lounge-singer buddy, Dean Vivian carps winningly. (Vivian is done up in a gold jumpsuit that another character describes as looking like "Liberace's ball sac.") Andy Garrison and Jeff East kill as a pair of talkative gangsters; the rest of the cast ranges from fine to insufficient, a couple of scenes weakened as a result.
Directing along with Simonian is the indefatigable Kyle Hatley, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's assistant artistic director and the director of the excellent, intimate, recently closed Hamlet. There's something remarkable about the attention Hatley has lavished upon local artists, who have responded with energy and excitement. Far from a dead zone, this summer feels like an afterparty.
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