Friday 16 October 2015

Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar, or, Another Failed Issue Play

Note: A slightly delayed review of the performance on Friday 9th October 2015.

The penultimate scene of this dull overlong play offers a fleeting glimpse of what might have been. The central character, Gabe (Luke Newberry), in emotional turmoil, seeks sex in a public toilet with potentially serious consequences. It's virtually the only moment in the evening when the oppressive environment for the GLBT community on the unnamed university campus which Christopher Shinn's text goes on and on about actually feels emotionally real. Unfortunately the rest of the play gets nowhere near this.

In advance I suspected the play might be a classic issues lecture. There are certainly elements of this, and they work about as well as such things in live theatre usually work. But as it turns out this is not the play's main problem which is three fold – a multiplicity of strands which never fully cohere, the shallowly drawn nature of the characters (most of whom feel like types rather than potentially real people) and the lack of emotional punch.

Thus we have a President who is considering a Senate run, a university newspaper reporter who is clearly damaged by his past life, a closet sports type currently in a heterosexual relationship but best friends with the aforementioned Gabe, and the troubled title character himself. With the exception of that penultimate scene, Shinn consistently fails to really get at the motivations of any of them and equally seems determined to argue for much of the time against complexity of motivation. Gabe is actually allowed to point this out early in Act 2 arguing, correctly (at least from what little the audience has seen), that we don't know why Ferrara has committed suicide – but he is swiftly shouted down by just about everyone else on stage. It is arguable that the rest of the Gabe narrative does allow for complexity of motivation, but because that is lacking elsewhere it doesn't have the impact that it should. The play is also replete with people who behave in a ghastly way to each other and are then allowed to do so again with no apparent consequences. It was particularly beyond me why on earth just about every gay man on the stage wanted to jump into bed with the awful Drew, or why Jenny didn't leave Tim. In the latter case there are of course plenty of reasons why people stay in clearly failing relationships but if you want to make your audience believe that that is what is going on you've got to show that at least one of such reason applies.

The performers trapped in this show do their best with what they're given. Ryan McParland effectively brings out the peculiarities and isolation of the title character, but can't ultimately transcend the motivational gaps. The wheelchair bound Christopher Imbrosciano, arguably the sole really sympathetic character on stage, is also finely done. There's a slightly demonic overtone to Oliver Johnstone's Drew which fitted the way the character was written but made it that much harder to see why nobody calls him out on his behavior at any point in the evening.

As well as being trapped in the script the performers are also trapped in Hildegard Bechtler's mistaken set. The most striking feature of this (from my seat in the circle) was the upper level. This is used once in each act – the second time in a bit of direction that smacked of desperation. I was reminded of the unused sofa in the Royal Court's In Basildon (also directed by Dominic Cooke). Below all we have is a nondescript room backing on a similarly disused corridor, with the occasional addition of some institutional type chairs. The set does nothing to bring the under-drawn locations of the script to life. Possibly the intention is to emphasise that the same situation could happen in many places but, if so, it fails dramatically.

Empty seats and the shifting of Circle audience members to the Stalls are most unusual occurrences at the Donmar but in themselves say something about what I suspect word of mouth is already doing for this piece. Despite the valiant efforts of the performers, this cannot be recommended.

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