For anyone who can remember the ineffectual zeal of student political societies, societies that seem to think the offer of free pizza is enough to summon up their members’ blood, the opening to Teddy Ferrara may bring a sinking heart as it conjures those evenings of poor attendance and petty victory against ‘the man’.
We’re in a US university. The college is in the aftermath of a student suicide, with the campus paper about to reveal that the student was gay. A weird kid – eponymous Teddy – joins the LGBT society, the head of that society, Gabe, starts a relationship with the needy editor of the college paper, Drew. There are love triangles and break-ups and one night stands. It’s the whole E4 gamut of post-teen heartache.
Although it takes a while, and huge swathes of the play are too much like a teen drama series, it asserts itself in the end. Christopher Shinn cleverly conflates the absolute insignificance of Gabe’s and Drew’s shitty relationship with something much more important. It’s a constant vacillation between the insignificant soap opera lives of a clutch of self-obsessed students, or a metonym for something more. It makes for a frustrating piece, and one that asks what’s actually important in those university years, where exam pressure and sexual harassment can both lead to suicide.
There’s also a deft exploration of the generational gap in universities: the student populace is overwhelmingly young, but the people who run these institutions are older, more set in their ways and with career ambitions of their own.
These older people – embodied in the college’s President – sneer and snigger at the ways young people choose to identify themselves, joking about what letters should be included in the LGBTQ acronym. The President in particular is an excellent character, brilliantly performed by Matthew Marsh. He tries to be on a level with the students, holding court in committee meetings. But out of earshot he mocks and laughs at them. It’s not good enough just to say the right thing when people are listening. The cheap laughs from the President’s clodhopping remarks are a bit crass, but they build a brilliantly rounded character.
The President is an adult in public, a child in private making jokes behind the scenes. The students are the other way round: they believe so vehemently in their causes in private, but behave like children when they want to make their voices heard in public.
Often it’s difficult to tell if this play is a condemnation of young’uns and their weirdy ways, the depravity that the internet encourages, the obsession with nude selfies and revenge porn and all those lines that old conservatives trot out to disparage young people.
But what Shinn starts to prod at is that conservatism is not confined to old people; and in fact there’s a growing conservatism among student bodies, even one born of an absolute liberalism: if trans, gender-queer, LGBTQ students can demand absolute respect for the way they choose to identify, then that should also mean students can demand not to have their opinions challenged. There have been a few examples of guest speakers being cancelled because they’re too conservative, or hold controversial views. Obama even addressed it in a speech a few weeks ago. And more recently students have been claiming that respect for individuals should extend to, for example, Christian students who refuse to read Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. These are the extreme examples of the old adage: political correctness gone mentally challenged.
The play’s comedy is its most problematic aspect. Ryan McParland’s Teddy Ferrara is easy to laugh at. He has quirks, he’s a bit odd. But when we laugh, we’re doing what the bullies are doing. And when the President makes a joke about the number of gender-neutral toilets there should be on campus – because it’s difficult to tell how many students do not identify as one side or the other of a gender binary – everyone laughs.
LGBTQ societies can be homogenous – the society in this fictional university is populated by ambitious men in Brooks Brothers clothing (the question of whether people ‘look gay’ is another big one that the play grasps at) – and it isn’t able to accommodate someone like Teddy.
It may not be the fault of an institution that someone isn’t willing to come out. A lot of them do a great deal. Instead, it’s a lack of courage because of a society that still is full of bullies and bigots. There’s an accusation in the play that same-sex marriage is just adherence to a heteronormative fantasy. “How’s it going to help a queer kid who’s afraid of walking into a public space for fear of being themselves?”
Teddy Ferrara is a wide-ranging, far-reaching play that makes the case for society, or at least university societies, finding themselves at a transitional point. By touching on so many of campus life’s current crises, it’s tempting to see everything as a big metaphor. The university is a microcosm of the USA: it has a President at the top, it has grassroots movements at the bottom. But as the characters become more like characters and less like abstractions it becomes clear that they can only speak for themselves. The microcosm falls apart. Gabe and Drew are self-absorbed, mutually destructive children. As much as they want the fame, they don’t represent a movement.
This works because of the uniformly excellent cast, who slowly reveal the idiosyncrasies of their characters, who refuse to let their performances turn into broad brushstroke abstractions.Teddy Ferrara induces an uneasy tension between the individual and universal, without ever attempting to resolve it.