Theater Review: Speech & Debate at 35below
Asheville theatergoers would be wise to track the career of Gabby Bailey, a bright young actress who thrives as the eccentric centerpiece of Attic Salt Theatre Company’s production of Speech & Debate at 35below.
Written by Tony-winner Stephen Karam (The Humans) and originally staged Off-Broadway in 2007, the play takes a couple of scenes to find its groove as it loops in three Oregon high schoolers whose paths will converge in the titular extracurricular club.
Things get off to a rickety start with the somewhat awkward presentation of Howie (Graham Podraza) messaging an older man, their texts popping up on a television screen to the tune of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as the teen reads his contributions aloud. The e-dialogue includes some chuckle-worthy lines and the musical accompaniment is a fun, regal choice, but a consistent tone remains elusive.
The same still-developing vibe continues in the following encounter between Solomon (Brendan Nickerson) and his school newspaper adviser (Lara Hollaway), establishing the ambitious reporter as a motormouthed young man in search of a major scoop, yet also a bit one-note in his personality.
In other words, it takes until Bailey’s Diwata makes her first appearance for Speech & Debate to feel like it’s truly going somewhere. Part of director Marci Bernstein’s smartly staged, imaginary three-in-one view of the teens in their individual bedrooms, Diwata lets loose her unbridled and humorously delusional self-confidence via a live video blog post while Howie and Solomon tune in and react with their respective screens.
Her mix of song, dance, and filter-free dialogue makes for a showy part, but Bailey imbues it with the level of idealistic adolescent grandeur necessary for it to work. It’s a commanding, unwavering comedic performance, rounded out by frequent horrified looks when others dare diverge from Diwata’s vision.
Much of her vlog vitriol is aimed at a teacher who didn’t give her a part in a school production, a gripe that prompts Howie to reveal his own unflattering connection to the educator and kicks the plot into motion, handling a variety of serious topics in a generally mature manner.
Revelations of touchy individual secrets aren’t presented in smooth scripted dramatic fashion, but nonetheless feel true to life — a naturalism at which Bailey’s male costars excel, helping balance out her free spirit.
Of the two, Podraza is more grounded in his portrayal and brings significant nuance to his experienced but still tentative character, though Solomon is arguably the play’s trickiest assignment, complete with a repressed history of his own — a challenge for which Nickerson’s verbose energy proves a suitable fit.
When all three teens are on stage together, especially accompanied by Hollaway in her other welcome adult injection as an area newspaper reporter, their oddball dynamic is allowed to shine strongest and Speech & Debate reaches peak form.
Propelled by a glorious dance sequence, choreographed by Hollaway and cued to a certain pop song alluded to earlier in the story, the work reaches a satisfying conclusion and wraps up right when it feels like it’s said what it wants to say.
Speech & Debate runs May 10-26, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at 35below at Asheville Community Theatre. For details and tickets, visit ashevilletheatre.org.
(Photo courtesy of Attic Salt Theatre Company)