Where’s my Remote? “Teddy Ferrara” at the Goodman Theatre Fails to Impress – by Lara Jung

March 1, 2013 in Blog by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

“Teddy Ferrara” presents a current and intriguing issue (one of suicide and the conflicting social climate that pervades our college communities): the only problem? It was like watching a bad Lifetime movie, only I couldn’t change the channel.

The play starts out very promising. The story is one of a university struggling to comprehend the issues surrounding the LGBTQ community. Throughout the play, various characters are introduced, with their relationships in center stage. The play’s namesake is a freshman who, though a little socially awkward, attempts to join the social scene at the university. When he commits suicide at the end of Act One, the characters are left to grapple with the various implications of Teddy’s suicide.

The issue seemed relevant, especially since I have begun looking around for colleges. One of the criteria for my search is a well-rounded social atmosphere, one including both tolerance and understanding. In short, I can relate to the issue at hand. Here’s the thing, I spent too much of the play with my arms folded tightly across my chest—and if I know anything about body language, I’m pretty sure that my arms weren’t folded out of comfort.  While I don’t always expect theater to make me feel comfortable, if I am forced out of my comfort zone, I at least expect the writing to be a bit more exciting.

Playwright Christopher Shinn’s lines are not only predictable, but also repetitive, with cheesy phrases such as “now-a-days” which I heard not once but three times. He redeems himself with the president and provost characters, though I don’t doubt that these characters’ success is more dependent on the actors (Patrick Clear as the president and Janet Ulrich Brooks as the provost) than anything else. Clear plays a college president trying to maneuver the political mess that comes from the suicide of a gay student. His responses to faculty member Ellen’s verbal attacks about the “bigoted” climate at the university are political and well meaning, but most importantly, they provide a small amount of comedic relief for the audience.

I think that everyone can appreciate that small break from the constant bombardment of seriousness that “Teddy Ferrara” seems intent on delivering.  There is nothing inherently wrong with a play that tries to start a dialogue about a current issue, except when that dialogue is like most of Act One: spent with one actor onstage talking, texting, or video chatting with unseen characters. The audience feels completely out of the loop, with lines like, “I just got this text from [insert name here.]” It is through his trite dialogue and underdeveloped characters (and subsequently their shallow relationships) that Shinn in fact detracts from the issues facing the LGBTQ community. He attempts to relate these issues to a larger audience; however, he only succeeds in oversimplifying the issues at hand.

Clearly, the play attempts to shine a light on the complexities of the issues that are entrenched in daily campus life, however, in trying to reveal the inner workings of such a tragedy, the play fails in that it plays into the very stereotypes it attempts to discredit. There is no great diversity in the characters—for a play that argues for diversity in both the LGBTQ community and in the world, there is only one straight student included. There is the closeted bi-curious jock, the wheel chair-bound kid with an unrequited love, and the emotionally stunted young man with abandonment issues.  These stereotypes function to undermine the argument the play makes: that LGBTQ issues should not be taken at face value, instead they are much more complicated than a political agenda often suggests.

On a higher note, I thought the costume design (by Jenny Mannis) was spot-on, especially considering I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the outfits worn by Gabe (president of the LGBTQ student group) on some Urban Outfitters mannequins.  With respect to appealing to a younger audience, the costuming is just about the only connection the show has. Though about young students, it is only in the hipster glasses and trendy cardigans that I can relate. So congratulations Mannis, you are the connection to the younger demographic, in spite of all attempts to alienate us through uncomfortable sexual encounters and awkward club conversations.

The amount of gay sex in Teddy Ferrara aims to push boundaries, when in reality, it just made me feel a little bit violated. At first, I thought to myself, “Would I be this offended if it weren’t gay sex?” Then I thought, “Yep. Yes I would be.” In an attempt to address the small bit of homophobia that exists in everyone’s hearts (as suggested by Ellen in one of the meetings with the president), the play oversteps the boundary between theater and HBO. Not that there is anything wrong with HBO, I just don’t often watch HBO with an elderly couple sitting next to me, across from a group of middle-aged adults I don’t know.  Also, when I get bored in the middle of a two and half hour long movie, I can reach for my remote control. Unfortunately, there was no “off” button for this show.