Toeing the line between relationship drama and an engaging power play between victimization, identity, and LGBTQ rights, Christopher Shinn’s latest play “Teddy Ferrara,” does a serviceable, but less than perfect job of framing ongoing US culture war issues surrounding gay, bi-sexual, and transgender college communities. Shinn locates these issues through a commitment to realistic character development, but at times, the focus on the ins and outs of love and infatuation sideline the more engaging political and social undertones of the play. It’s not to say that his characters aren’t convincing or enjoyable. With a poignant subtext about our communication obsessed generation, young and talented actors whose gender identities and sexual orientations actually fit the parts they play, and a natural gift for dialogue, Shinn gives the play a tone of realism and emotion that was truly captivating at times. But unfortunately, a great deal of what moved the play forward rather than the political, and social issues was a more conventional portrait of personal desire and heartbreak, which was merely set against a backdrop of LGBTQ rights issues.
The play focuses on the character of Gabe (Liam Benzvi), a college senior with political aspirations who heads a “Queer Students Group” group on campus and is romantically involved with the emotionally-demanding and sometimes sadistic Drew (Adam Poss). It has a well-developed cast of characters, such as Gabe’s closeted, slightly prejudiced and perhaps bisexual best friend Tim (Josh Salt), Jaq (Jax Jackson) a transgender student who plays a large part in the LGBTQ activism at the college and Nicky (Rashaad Hall) the editor and sometimes love interest of both Drew and Gabe. Through the course of the play Gabe meets an outwardly dorky freshman, Teddy Ferrara (Ryan Heindl) who while awkward on the outside, has a private life as a Camboy, confidently exposing himself and masturbating for the attention of an online audience.
As the plot develops, Teddy discovers that on multiple occasions his roommate has filmed him having sex with another man with an inconspicuous webcam and then posted it on the Internet. This disturbs Teddy, but not too much, as he talks about it fairly comfortably with Gabe, reports it to his R.A., and has sex again with his partner even with the risk that his roommate might be filming it. After stating that he didn’t feel up to masturbating for his online audience, he decides to attend a Queer Students Group dance party. After attempting to talk to the stylish Nicky and being completely ignored at the party, Teddy kills himself by jumping off the library balcony. This seems to imply that the reason for his suicide was due to social alienation rather than explicit bullying. Instead of commenting on the actual dynamics of LGBTQ bullying, the play sets up a clichéd dynamic of able bodied cool students versus the unstylish, short, or impaired students multiple times during the play. For instance, early in the first act, a friend asks Gabe if he’s dating Teddy, to which he states something to the effect of “Yeah, like I’d fuck that.” Later in the play, when Jay (Christopher Imbrosciano), a plainly dressed wheelchair bound friend, admits his love for Gabe, Gabe explains that he’s not attracted to him because he’s in a wheelchair.
Many press statements and descriptions for “Teddy Ferrara” frame the play as directly concerned with the countless bullying cases of LGBTQ individuals in the US and the statistically higher suicide rate of LGBTQ youth as compared to other youth. The play’s most explicit cue is from the suicide of gay Rutgers University student, Tyler Clementi in 2010, which was portrayed by the media as an instance of cyber-bullying that led to suicide even though the details show that this may have been only one factor in his death. The content of the play gives a much less direct portrait of bullying and prejudice, dealing more with the after effects of victimization and media portrayal: a depiction which is intimately tied to Clementi’s case. Though Shinn himself warns against drawing too close a connection between Clementi and Ferrara, the situation is undeniably similar, sans the cyber-sex and the logistics of the actual harassment. In Clementi’s case the reasons for suicide were far more ambivalent, but Teddy’s suicide seems to be linked to his social rejection from other gay peers rather than his non-gay peers, as he was already comfortable exposing himself nude to an anonymous audience. This fact begs the question, why didn’t Shinn spend more of the play developing Teddy as a character before having him commit suicide in the first act? Rather than making Teddy a comic relief character with an unexpected suicidal turn, it seems that elaborating his character would have given the weight of his suicide far more significance. This decision stands in opposition to Shinn’s desire to depict a realistic portrait of a gay subject who experienced the direct effects of victimization, and suffered from a personal perspective. Namely, when describing his opinion about Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project,” he states that he was mystified as to why Matthew Shepard was less developed as a character in a play intended to tell his story.
Instead of focusing on the character development of Teddy, the play focuses on the much more balanced life of Gabe. While arguing with a faculty member that sees Ferrara’s suicide as an opportunity to give LGBTQ bullying a face and use the momentum to get equality for the LGBTQ community at the school, Gabe makes the argument that no one can fully understand the motivations behind Teddy’s suicide and that, by extension, making a victim out of Teddy is morally wrong. This is certainly an important dichotomy to recognize, the point that all human beings deserve subjectivity rather than being labeled as victims or abstracted values and the opportunity to use an tragic event to work towards rights and equality. But disappointingly enough, Gabe’s relative indifference to Teddy’s suicide later on, and the play’s shift of focus to the romantic narrative of Gabe and other characters from this point onward, relegate Teddy’s suicide to background noise. For instance, after a heated scene where LGBTQ students, led by Jaq, protest at a school political event, the intriguing issues about victimization and subjectivity taper off into depicting Gabe as a victim of torrid romantic conflicts. Near the end, Gabe’s circumstances end up mirroring Teddy’s: he stands, friendless and alone, contemplating suicide from the library balcony.
Though “Teddy Ferrara” is exceptionally well cast, well acted, immediately enjoyable and convincingly interesting, it tends to underplay social-critical elements. In addition to the lack of character development in the character of Teddy himself, the play highlights romance-derived alienation as a primary cause of suicide instead of the more pertinent issue of LGBTQ youth suicide from bullying and the disapproval of their peers and families for their identities. Aside from these complaints, the play did a competent job of introducing a wider audience to a gamut of LGBTQ issues. Some that were mentioned, (although some in passing) were the ever-present conflicts with administrations to recognize LGBTQ individuals by school and social institutions, and the ever present need for unisex bathrooms.
While it seems that “Teddy Ferrara” comes from the depths of Shinn’s heart in a way that some of his other plays don’t, it sometimes felt like a predictable drama with contemporary elements more than an exploration of how it feels to be labeled as a victim from the standpoint of the victimized. That being said,“Teddy Ferrara” inherently knows what it is to depict the relatable subjectivities of its characters and it should be applauded for being a play that is definitively committed to the realistic portrayal of gay, bi, and trans students. It demonstrates first hand the fact that people should not be judged based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and that in reality, whether someone is lesbian, gay, transgender, bi-sexual, cisgender, heterosexual or any other gender or sexual identity, everyone possesses commonalities. Some of the structural problems are reminiscent of Shinn’s play “Dying City,” which presents a destructive portrait of an Iraq-stationed US soldier who corresponds with his wife against a background of post-9/11 anxiety without deeply or politically exploring the context of the terrorist attacks or commenting on the absurdity of the war. In a similar, yet less politically ambivalent vein “Teddy Ferrara” illustrates the painful relationships between a group of gay college students while missing opportunities to push the social and political issues into the foreground instead of the background.