Teddy Ferrara, a new play opening Monday 11 at the Goodman Theatre, isn’t really about Teddy Ferrara. As an awkward and out college freshman whose sexual exploits his heterosexual roommate is trying to capture on video, he certainly is at the center of a campus maelstrom that unravels the lives of the people around him. But in the aftermath of a tragedy, it’s the scapegoating, the internalized oppression and the expression of queer desire that linger in playwright Christopher Shinn’s complex and unsettling new drama.
“It’s about a first love and about all of the excitement and drama and trauma that can come with that,” says director Evan Cabnet. “It deals with desire and longing.” Desire often proves the motivating factor behind a domino effect of actions that have characters turning on both each other and also their own better instincts in pursuit of love and acknowledgement in a world that tends to dismiss same-sex relationships. For queer viewers in particular, their actions resonate.
The story centers around Gabe, an affable junior who spearheads a campus group for queer students and is falling madly in love with his new boyfriend Drew, an ambitious journalist for the school newspaper. Their relationship is complicated by Gabe’s best friend Tim, a cocksure straight guy running for student-body president who is contemplating cheating on his girlfriend Jenny (and may harbor same-sex desires) and Teddy Ferrara, an introverted freshman dabbling in online sex.
Out playwright Shinn ripped a page from the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in 2010 (perhaps in response to being filmed kissing another man by his roommate), for inspiration. In particular, Shinn imagined Clementi as more complex than the victim he was constructed to be by the media and some LGBT groups. “Certainly the Tyler Clementi story stimulated profound feelings in me,” Shinn says. “When I saw that the initial impulse from many people seemed to be to sentimentalize him, flatten his psyche and turn him into a pure victim of a cruel roommate, I became very suspicious. I think the impulse towards scapegoating allows us to flee self-scrutiny.”
Those impulses inform Ferrara. In the aftermath of a school tragedy, for example, an unproductive dialogue between a school president prepping for a possible Senate run and a fired-up group of queer activists ensues. “That way of thinking, all it really does is flatten conversation; it flattens discourse and the opportunity [Shinn] sees for real serious thought and real serious discussion,” Cabnet says. “No matter which side of the argument the characters are on, there’s very little headway made through that type of debate.”
Teddy Ferrara also features potent displays of queer sexual expression that seem to be missing from nearly every news item, sitcom and story about LGBT people these days. “One reason I wanted to write a play on these themes for so long was my being frustrated when I saw The Laramie Project and realized that not only did it not represent the victim onstage, it barely touched on sexuality at all,” Shinn says. “It was a really asexual play. Sex is such a big part of life and especially when writing about queer youth, one has to deal with it directly and honestly.”
In Ferrara numerous issues are laid bare for frank and honest discussion. Let’s hope audiences have the courage to engage them.
Teddy Ferrara opens Monday 11 at the Goodman Theatre.