One of the problems with plays dominated by collegiate sexuality — and there is no shortage of graphic undergraduate sex in Christopher Shinn's “Teddy Ferrara” — is that if you are a few years removed from that particular time of life you tend to watch such dramas cringing at the memory of your own behavior; you're just one step from shouting out to the nicer characters some version of the line favored by the great sexologist Dan Savage: “It gets better!”
To put this another way, it is difficult for an adult audience, beyond the ivy walls, anyway, to see campus sexuality as the best metaphor for sexuality in general, gay or straight. Young people often make poor choices in the sexual and social arenas. Improving upon them is a good part of why one goes to college.
And when you're watching these choices play out over 2 hours and 40 minutes — which is the absurdly elongated running time of Evan Cabnet's production of Shinn's sprawling play — constantly starting over with one “Oh, hi there” scene after another, it really helps to feel that the play is putting all this into some kind of context beyond the campus.
That myopia is one of several problems with “Teddy Ferrara,” which the Goodman is marketing toward college students, although I suspect many in that increasingly sophisticated demographic will resist its patina of the After School Special (or “Degrassi High,” at least). Shows set on campuses tend to play well to high-schoolers, although one seated across from me looked rather discomforted when yet another fly unzipped.
Shinn's “Teddy Ferrara” has very serious themes. The play, which was to have its official world premiere Monday night in Chicago, is inspired by the case of gay Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who killed himself in 2010 after being harassed by his straight roommate. It also makes apparent reference to suicides at New York University, where, in separate incidents from 2003 to 2009, at least three students jumped to their deaths inside the Bobst Library. But it's also clearly inspired by Shinn's experiences as a teacher at The New School. The character called University President (Patrick Clear) is a thinly veiled critique of Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator and president of The New School who, like his fictional counterpart, harbored continued political ambitions. Shinn also has dreamed up a ridiculously one-note Provost (Janet Ulrich Brooks), who likes to say the word “protocol,” and who comes off not so much as the university's chief academic officer but as a presidential sidekick trying to rein in the loopy boss. Then again, academic administrators invariably are the villains of academic plays.
Shinn certainly has the number of liberal academics who have no clue how to relate to their gay or transgendered students, despite all the pizza lunches and diversity cupcakes in the world. (The best scene in the play is when Clear's University President tries, pathetically, to relate.) And one can respect Shinn's main theme here, which is that youthful sexual behavior is complicated, and that when the media gets hold of stories of bullying or, worse, suicide, the binary roles assigned to the various parties (aggressor, victim, enabler) often bear precious little relationship to the realities of real people. When gay college kids are stereotyped as victims, the stereotype is no less pernicious. Indeed not.
But one sees where this play is going long before it arrives. It is a rambling piece of work at this juncture, directed with insufficient focus or urgency. There is potential, but “Teddy Ferrara” is far from being ready for a full production, especially given the distinguished history of the author. The very young cast is reasonably solid — Ryan Heindl, who plays the title role, is by far the most interesting performer; alas, he does not last. But there is thoughtful work from Jax Jackson, and from Adam Poss, playing one of the more mercurial figures with verve. Kelli Simpkins, whose character is under-written, is interesting nonetheless. Liam Benzvi, who plays the young student on whom the play places the most demands, is charming and sensitive, but his Gabe is just too neutral to sustain the drama or imply change.
The play struggles mightily with the way electronic devices now dominate campuses — too many scenes start with “I just got this text,” and the play gets trapped in one-way conversations, often involving a laptop with a veiled screen, a camera and some struggling attempt at sexual connection. “Teddy Ferrara” would greatly benefit from spending a moment or two in the off-campus universe.
When: Through March 3
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $14-$45 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org