Donmar Warehouse, London – until 5 December 2015
Five years ago, Tyler Clementi, a bespectacled 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey jumped off the George Washington Bridge. His room-mate Dharun Ravi had set up a video camera to secretly record Clementi’s tryst with another male student and broadcast it on the internet. Thanks to New Jersey’s muddled legislation on hate crime, Ravi served only 20 days of his sentence.
Forty years ago, I went to Lancaster, the university with, at least anecdotally, the highest suicide rate in the country; a stastistic not diminished by the presence of a fourteen-storey tower block with balconies overlooking a concrete plaza at its centre.
The trouble with Christopher Shinn’s impassioned but soapily-scripted play Teddy Ferrara is that you can’t tell which era it’s set in – it is clearly based on the Clementi case and students use mobile phones relentlessly. Unfortunately with blustery political posturings, the unchanging introspective stasis of academia, a campus election, a ‘gay disco’ for heaven’s sake, and a megaphone protest, it combines the texture of The History Man with a scary relevance to recent events at Cardiff University where a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer was rescinded for something she said about transexuality on Newsnight.
Teddy Ferrara sounds like the name of a presidential candidate, but in Ryan McParland’s skilful, painfully nerdy, defensive and inward-looking characterization he’s the entire opposite. Teddy’s issues include extreme awkwardness, unappealing looks, an online coterie of punters who may or may not be paying to see him masturbate, and for all we know personal hygiene. As an anti-hero, he has it in spades and Shinn’s boldest plotting is to bring this I-can-only-watch-him-through-my-fingers character to his nadir in the first act.
With three sub-plots, a bisexual love-triangle and a power struggle for control of the student newspaper, Shinn throws too much into the mix with the result that even his best-concieved characters are poorly-served, and at a talky 2 hours 45 not all of their stories are fully developed let alone resolved. Despite Luke Newberry‘s charming portrayal, Gabe – the wholesome student you must like because he’s the puppyish chair of the gay group – is as irritating as ‘Danny Winters’ the inoffensive character planted in the movie Stonewall to ease Midwestern heterosexual multiplex audiences into the plot.
Some of the best work comes from excellent actors in cipherish: Chrisopher Imbrosciano imported from a recent American production is sardonic and challenging as wheelchair-user Jay, and Griffyn Gilligan fierce with finesse as transgendered Jaq who would definitely beat Germaine Greer in any head-to-head on the issue.
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