Chicago Theater Review: TEDDY FERRARA (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 12, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Teddy Ferrara, Goodman Theatre’s new commissioned work, is almost three hours long. That excess suggests that nobody had the courage to cut or, not knowing what it was about to start with, couldn’t know where to start or stop. The indulgent length also implies that Teddy Ferrara has a lot of plot to share and points to make or, sinisterly, that author Christopher Shinn can’t tell his tale without taking our time.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Teddy Ferrara"_Goodman_Chicago

By a long-winded play’s welcome end, the latter is the case. Somehow Shinn manages to write around a true-life tabloid tragedy, exploiting but never exploring the 2010 suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, a shy gay lad whose sex with a stranger was videotaped by his despicable roommate (himself a member of a minority); the ensuing scandal forced the 18-year-old to jump off the George Washington Bridge.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Teddy Ferrara"_Goodman_Chicago

Instead of addressing issues like the presumption of privacy in sex or the passive-aggressive cruelty of what has been called a hate crime, Shinn renames the victim Teddy Ferrara, misleadingly entitling the play after him when it’s not. Shinn ignores the inconvenient truth called Tyler Clementi, frittering away his 180 minutes with soap-operatic depictions of prominent “A-gay” students and their political ambitions, their unquenchable penchant for public sex so many years after Stonewall, and the predictable commitment problems that mess up their open affairs. The terrible question, “So what?” erupts every fifteen minutes during the interminable evening. As such, Teddy in effect gets to die a second time — of neglect.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Teddy Ferrara"_Goodman_Chicago

Shinn’s title purports to do justice to Tyler — I mean, Teddy — but, given a shocking story as his source, he sensationalizes it instead, depicting Teddy, if not Tyler, as a computer-programming hypocrite who finds men at a website called “Man Hunt” and who, though expecting his privacy to be protected, had no compunctions about jacking off in public porn. Perhaps for legal reasons, the roommate who drove Teddy/Tyler to the bridge is never seen: We learn his methods but not his motives. (Oh — and Teddy jumps from the ninth floor of the library, not a bridge, so no one dare say this is really Tyler Clementi. Of course not. Shinn is simply portraying another gay kid too sensitive to live.) The young man’s early and unnecessary death serves mainly as a litmus test to expose the unnamed university’s callousness, complicity or cluelessness — actually “all of the above” since Shinn’s preferred strategy is to cover the waterfront but ignore the boats.  We hear every side of the story but the one that matters: Why this marginalized Tyler/Teddy did it and where that leaves the living.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Teddy Ferrara"_Goodman_Chicago

To briefly humor the padded plot, the play’s real title belongs to Gabe (Liam Benzvi), an ambitious gay climber and establishment apologist running for student president against his supposedly straight best friend (Josh Salt), who has his own dime-novel love life. Gabe breaks up at periodic intervals with his control-freak boyfriend (Adam Poss), the overly confident student editor who talks monogamy, practices promiscuity and undermines his relationships. They blatantly interact with stunningly heavy-handed university types: The fuddy-duddy university president (Patrick Clear), the ineffectual provost (Janet Ulrich Brooks), and assorted stereotypical LGBTQ campus radicals, as well as a handicapped student who exists in order to be rejected, thus exposing the toxic moral vacuum of future-politician Gabe. (Conveniently at Teddy’s eulogy, Gabe pretends that they were close friends, even though he could never remember his name the few times that they met.)

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Teddy Ferrara"_Goodman_Chicago

The deliberately unfinished ending of this messy play also betrays a playwright unwilling to take a stand, just positions. By now it’s clear these aren’t people, just talking points made flesh. Sporadically, Shinn arbitrarily plunges characters into shock-effect sex to distract us from the schematic soullessness of a script that badly wants it not just both ways, but all ways.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Teddy Ferrara"_Goodman_Chicago

Despite Evan Cabnet’s manically diversionary staging, Teddy Ferrara has nothing true, let alone new, to offer. (Well, there is one interesting observation: That bigotry depends, not on the 99% of us that hates to hate, but the 1% that lets it happen when we’re not looking.)  But, otherwise, yes, stop the presses!:  Gays can be unfaithful even as they talk about loyalty; Straights hide their hidden desires; Universities prefer to paper over problems with task forces that lack both task and force; and college journalists are little better than Internet scandal-mongers. If any of this seems like late-breaking news, rush over to Goodman Theatre for a reality check and relevancy overhaul. Everybody else can skip this superficial treatment of a modern true-life tale.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Teddy Ferrara"_Goodman_ChicagoFor what it’s worth: The opening night performance was delayed 20 minutes when an audience member felt faint. That, at least, was real.

photos by Liz Lauren

Teddy Ferrara
Goodman Theatre
scheduled to end on March 3, 2013
for tickets, call 312.443.3800
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