While admirable in its ambition to depict gay suicide as a complex phenomenon beyond simplistic media depictions of cause and effect, Christopher Shinn’s “Teddy Ferrara” displays the same characteristics it wants to criticize. It aspires to conflate the personal and political, but ends up with characters who represent types; it attempts to bring us into a collegiate world of young adults led by confusing sexual desires, but gives us series of cliches: the wheelchair-bound young man defined too much by unrequited love, the seemingly straight golden boy and a seedy sexual encounter involving a bathroom stall and wide stances.
The sexual semi-explicitness of the show comes off especially problematically in this premiere production at the Goodman Theater, directed by Evan Cabnet (“The Performers”). The main character Gabe (Liam Benzvi) and his new boyfriend Drew (Adam Poss) strip to their undies early on, but the staging and performances are uncomfortably self-conscious. Almost every scene that you would think would be sexy isn’t, and Cabnet never achieves a feeling of intimacy or even a convincing sense of inner desire.
We hear of Gabe’s fears of attachment and Drew’s fears of abandonment, but there’s little underlying complexity in the playing if not the writing. Since the subtext remains inchoate, what’s spoken becomes superficial, even at times pedantic, as characters play to political types. Drew, for example, is not just Gabe’s jealous boyfriend, but also the editor of the school paper who doesn’t much hesitate to ditch journalistic ethics in order to steer a story the way he wants.
By far the most interesting and mysterious character is Teddy Ferrara, a freshman who, in Ryan Heindl’s deft portrayal, believably epitomizes social awkwardness rooted partly, but not completely, in cluelessness over how to deal with his own sexuality. He’d like to join the gay group on campus — which Gabe leads — but the welcome there is superficial at best. He finds more camaraderie among the fans of his webcam appearances, who urge him to undress.
Inspired by Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, Teddy is spied on by his roommate while he has sex with a man he met online, and he jumps to his death from the library balcony at the end of the first act. Very purposefully, though, Shinn (“Dying City,” “Now or Later”) is careful not to connect these events too closely; in fact, Teddy doesn’t seem especially bothered by having been spied on. His suicide becomes a blank slate on which others can project their own political agendas, even if they were people who wanted very little to do with him while he was alive. Gabe, meanwhile, has his own reasons for not wanting to think of Teddy as a victim of intolerance, since he had continually promised to friend Teddy on Facebook without doing so.
Teddy is much missed in the second act, in large part because his contradictions were genuinely intriguing. Without him, the show descends into soap opera populated by the bland and transparent.