Practically no one comes off well in "Teddy Ferrara," Christopher Shinn's dramatically overstuffed world premiere play now at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. In fact, Shinn goes out of his way to depict the situations and diverse characters with such unflattering moral shades of gray that it's hard to relate to or sympathize with anyone by the end.
That's a shame, in light of the serious -- and timely -- subject matter.
"Teddy Ferrara"★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday (no show Feb. 26), 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (no evening show March 3); through Sunday, March 3
Running time: About two hours, 40 minutes with intermission
Parking: Area pay garages
Rating: For adults; strong sexual situations and language
For "Teddy Ferrara," Shinn draws from his own experiences teaching social media-obsessed college students and from his memories as a student at New York University in the late 1990s when several students committed suicide by leaping off library balconies on campus.
Shinn also borrows more headline-grabbing details from the highly publicized 2010 suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who was outed as gay when his intimate acts with another man were secretly captured and streamed online by his roommate.
Yet, rather than steer the focus of "Teddy Ferrara" to the growing incidence of cyberbullying, Shinn strangely comes off as more damning of the rush-to-judgment response of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community. He takes issue with the move to elevate victims as martyrs and to ignore unseemlier aspects of events that don't fit with preconceived narratives. Shinn also depicts LGBTQ demands for a more diverse and accepting society as heavy-handed, whiny and unreasonable -- a very strange position coming from a gay playwright.
"Teddy Ferrara" focuses on Gabe (Liam Benzvi), a senior who is president of a campus Queer Student Group of an unnamed large state university. He's also an ambitious double English and political science major considering a run for the presidency of the student assembly.
Gabe's world starts to fall apart when the title character (mawkishly played by Ryan Heindle and remade by Shinn into a sexual exhibitionist who is more comfortable online than in the real world) commits a copycat suicide.
Gabe's student group position pulls him into the erupting debate about safe and accepting campuses for LGBTQ students. But Gabe's main problem is really how he is emotionally manipulated by his new boyfriend, Drew (Adam Poss), the ethically compromised editor of the daily campus newspaper.
Though Poss performs well, Shinn makes Drew so unscrupulously malevolent that he could be cackling and twirling a mustache. The character is also part of the play's downfall, since it's hard to believe that no one on Drew's staff (like Rashaad Hall as Nicky) would seek help from a faculty adviser or journalism professor to call Drew out for his poorly sourced stories and blatant conflicts of interest.
Drew also causes a rift when he obsesses over Gabe's strong friendship with his straight friend, Tim (Josh Salt), who is considering cheating on his longtime girlfriend, Jenny (Paloma Nozicka). These characters don't seem to add much, other than providing Shinn a tacked-on plot strand to question why some gay people are pushed to remain closeted.
Another fault with the play is Shinn's decision to omit Teddy Ferrara's spying roommate and any of the parents who would inevitably be pulled onto campus in light of such tragic events. And it feels like a massive missed opportunity for Shinn to barely touch on the cyberbullying aspect of the story when he dwells so much elsewhere on how social media can cause distress and misinterpretation.
Shinn's script is full of sexually frank talk and situations (same-sex hookups in dorm rooms and public bathrooms), and director Evan Cabnet's staging of "Teddy Ferrara" leaves little to the imagination.
Though I'm not a fan of the script's plotting and the direction, Shinn's comic dialogue in "Teddy Ferrara" is a gift to actors. And the diverse cast assembled by Cabnet for the Goodman premiere is wonderful.
Patrick Clear stands out as the rambling university president, whose past and possible future in politics make him forever on guard with what he says. The uncomfortable and stifled reactions of actors like Kelli Simpkins, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Christopher Imbrosciano and Jax Jackson are fun to watch, though, as Clear's president goes off on major tangents.
In its serious strands, however, "Teddy Ferrara" proves frustrating. Shinn's refusal to provide answers to the play's situations or to explore his characters' odd motivations makes his work a bit of a mess.
Also, in light of this month's dedication of Rutgers University's new Tyler Clementi Center to offer programs to help students adjust to college life, the smug conclusion of "Teddy Ferrara" -- involving a ceremony honoring the fictional title character -- comes off like a poorly timed slap to all those working to stop real-life suicides tied to anti-gay bullying.