PITTSFIELD — When Stephen Karam’s “Speech & Debate’’ opened off-Broadway a decade ago, it was immediately clear that a gifted young playwright — he was all of 27 — had arrived.
Gratifyingly, Karam has delivered on that early promise. His trademark mixture of compassion, catch-you-off-guard humor, and shrewd social observation overrode the flaws in his family drama “Sons of the Prophet,’’ which received its world premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2011, went on to an off-Broadway run, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Then it all came together for Karam with 2016’s “The Humans,’’ which won the Tony Award for best play (and also became a Pulitzer finalist) while delivering a piercing portrait of a Pennsylvania clan whose fears and secrets rise to the surface during a Thanksgiving dinner in New York. Few dramas have more sensitively captured how the economic uncertainty of the past decade has shaken the psyche of the middle class than “The Humans,’’ which will be presented next March at Boston’s Shubert Theatre.
But Karam is no slouch when it comes to another key part of a playwright’s job: creating roles that furnish a showcase for actors and actresses who have the wit, energy, and powers of invention to take advantage of it. Which brings me, most happily, to a comic dynamo named Betsy Hogg, who delivers a sustained electric charge to Barrington Stage Company’s new production of “Speech & Debate,’’ directed with creative verve by Jessica Holt.
Hogg is flat-out hilarious as Diwata, a high-school student in Salem, Ore., who bounces blithely along that line between imaginative and eccentric. Because of a brewing sex scandal involving a drama teacher, Diwata is drawn into an unusual collaboration with two other students: Howie (Austin Davidson), a gay newcomer still trying to find his footing at the school, and Solomon (Ben Getz), an opportunistic reporter for the school paper. Davidson and Getz deliver solid performances and work well with Hogg, but she is unmistakably the driving force throughout.
Diwata heads the school’s Speech and Debate club, maintains an online video blog, and is driven by a zeal to be a big-time actress so intense she makes the title figure in “All About Eve’’ seem downright self-effacing. All she seems to lack is talent. For the purposes of her transcript, Diwata needs to enlist two other students to take part in a performance with her. It eventually proves to be a priceless musical adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible’’ featuring . . . a teenage Abraham Lincoln.
Yet the cast members do not scant the serious aspects of their characters — even zany Diwata has a real-life dilemma to cope with — and director Holt similarly ensures that “Speech & Debate’’ packs a dramatic punch when it needs to. Because of its particular dynamics, the play itself may only work fully onstage, to judge by the negative reviews that greeted the film adaptation (which I did not see) that was released earlier this year. The script relied upon at Barrington Stage has been updated to include, among other things, references to Mike Pence and Ted Cruz.
If anything, the play’s original message is more pertinent than ever, with its reminder that late adolescence can be a very rocky passage, especially in the digital age, when the transit from thought to word to deed can be lightning-quick.
Howie, who is 18, makes contact with the teacher in an online chat room where users troll for sex. Unaware whom he is flirting with, Howie is stunned when he recognizes the teacher’s e-mail address. Later, he posts a cryptic message on Diwata’s blog, saying he has “dirt’’ on the teacher (who is unseen in the play). That post kindles the fierce interest of Solomon. Determined to expose the drama teacher, Solomon pressures Howie to grant him an interview, which would put Howie in a spotlight he does not want. But Solomon may be trying to conceal a secret of his own.
Karam skims the surface of the issues (about sexuality, privacy, transparency, hypocrisy) that he raises in the first half of “Speech & Debate,’’ which was originally performed in 2006 as a workshop production at Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theatre. It’s as if the playwright is eager to shift gears into a more purely comic mode.
Even when he does, though, and the laughs start flowing more freely, it’s touching to see the bonds grow stronger among the quirky trio of social outcasts. A lot has changed in the past decade, but “Speech & Debate’’ retains its emotional core.
SPEECH & DEBATE
Play by Stephen Karam. Directed by Jessica Holt. Presented by Barrington Stage Company. At St. Germain Stage, Pittsfield, through July 29. Tickets $15-$48, 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.