Review “Teddy Ferrara”

VERY SLIGHTLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through March 3
Tickets: $14-$45, students $10
Phone: 312-443-3800

The world premiere of Christopher Shinn‘s “Teddy Ferrara” in Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre raises some thought-provoking issues, but the poorly focused two-hour-and-40-minute play needs serious pruning. And despite some strong acting, the shortcomings are evident in the Goodman production indulgently directed by Evan Cabnet.

Commissioned by the Goodman, Shinn’s work was sparked by a rash of suicides by gay teenagers in 2010, the best-known of which was that of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after a roommate live-streamed images of him having sex in their dorm room. The playwright, a devotée of psychoanalysis, also drew on his own painful experiences as a student at New York University two decades ago and on the angst of undergraduates he’s taught.

The result, which is set in the present on and near a large state university, is a mish-mash of troubled personal relationships and socio-political problems that are imperfectly integrated. While Shinn takes a relatively balanced approach to subjects such as victimization and the responsibility of a university for the mental well-being of its students, the motivations of his characters often are unconvincing, sometimes incomprehensibly so. Furthermore, so many scenes rely on verbal and visual clichés of gay coupling, people getting drunk, cell phone texting and webcam streaming, that it’s tedious and boring.

The Act I suicide of the title Teddy (Ryan Heindl) – a lonely freshman who knew his roommate was spying on him but also led a double life as an Internet exhibitionist – becomes a catalyst for a protest by LGBTQ activists who all assume the cause was bullying and the school’s inadequate protection of, and provisions for, their kind. All except Gabe (Liam Benzvi), that is. A senior, head of the Queer Students Group and the central character, he believes that the causes of Teddy’s death may never be known, and that the University President (Patrick Clear, free-associating with delicious vagueness), however out of touch he may be with student needs, basically is on the right track when he tells them to talk to each other.

Gabe’s affair with Drew (Adam Poss), editor of the school newspaper, is proving to be a roller-coaster ride after only a week, and his straight best friend since freshman year, Tim (Josh Salt), the outgoing student body president, has decided to run again, putting him in direct competition with Gabe and possibly causing tension between them.

Malicious, manipulative and basically immoral, Drew is the heavy of the piece, and it’s hard to understand what a decent guy like Gabe sees in him. If the attraction is supposed to be sexual, you’d never know it from the lack of chemistry between the actors, even in their love-making. The deep friendship that Gabe and Tim are supposed to have at the beginning also doesn’t make much of a mark, so Gabe’s desperate action on learning of a betrayal not only is out of character, it’s unbelievable. Why, instead of doing something that may ruin his life, doesn’t he just talk to his friend?

The behavior of Nicky (Rashaad Hall), the reporter who repeatedly starts to stand up to Drew and then backs down, also is inexplicable at times, and Tim’s girlfriend, Jenny (Paloma Nozicka), is as underwritten as the Provost. While one can admire Shinn for juggling a large ensemble and tackling complexities of college life, “Teddy Ferrara” gets a “D” for disappointing.