Set at a large public university in the Midwest, Christopher Shinn’s new work is loosely inspired by the 2010 suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi after his roommate broadcast webcam footage of Clementi in an intimate moment with another man. The play brims with sharply observed ideas about modern life for queer students, the role technology plays in defining our identities, campus politics, journalistic ethics, public sex, the use and abuse of victimhood…I could go on. And that turns out to be a problem in Evan Cabnet’s fine-edged, well-acted production. The playwright has so many points to make that Teddy Ferrara can feel at times more like a thesis than a dramatic work.
The play centers on Gabe (the engaging Liam Benzvi), the president of the school’s Queer Students Group. Gabe, his best friend Tim (Josh Salt) and Tim’s girlfriend Jenny (Paloma Nozicka) plan on smooth sailing through their senior year. Gabe has just started dating Drew (Adam Poss), the ambitious editor of the student newspaper, who encourages Gabe to run for president of the student assembly—but Drew, a manipulative young man who uses abandonment issues to excuse a controlling cruel streak, may have his own motives.
Gabe also serves on a working group advising the university’s president (a perfectly blustery Patrick Clear) on issues of social justice for LGBTQ students. When an out freshman named Teddy Ferrara (Ryan Heindl) commits suicide, members of this group view the tragedy as an opportunity to pressure the administration on what they see as a toxic campus culture of bullying. Gabe, who’d had multiple brushes with the awkward young man, resists this easy hagiography, insisting that we can’t know what was in Teddy’s heart and that he must also bear responsibility for his decision.
Shinn’s points that martyrdom is reductive and that sexuality in such discussions is too often scrubbed free of sex are well taken. Painting Teddy Ferrara, or Tyler Clementi, as helpless victims robs them of their agency.
But Shinn puts so many balls in the air that some of them inevitably get dropped, and some of Cabnet’s terrific cast members feel underserved: Nozicka, Rashaad Hall as a student reporter, Jax Jackson as a transgender grad student and Janet Ulrich Brooks as the university’s provost are giving their all to characters that feel like placeholders. Even Benzvi doesn’t get to play out the end of Gabe’s story, which takes place offstage. It’s galvanizing to see a diverse young cast tackling frank, unbowdlerized considerations of vital LGBT issues, and on the Goodman’s stage no less. If only it felt more like a seminar than a lecture.