It's hard to tell who the good guys are in the world-premiere production of the Goodman Theatre-commissioned drama "Teddy Ferrara." And that, as Martha Stewart might say, ends up being a very good thing. Written by Christopher Shinn, London's Royal Court Theatre wunderkind and the 2008 Pulitzer finalist for his previous work, "Dying City," the latest offering from Goodman's 2012/13 season is at once a psychological thriller and a zeitgeist exploration of our hyperconnected society. What price do we pay for the loss of privacy and personal space that comes with instantaneous e-gratification?
The production is gifted with rich and multi-layered source material that weaves so many vital subjects into a stunning and visceral web. Shinn's dexterity with dialogue that sounds intelligent, yet awkward and genuine, is nothing short of amazing. The stories told between words unspoken are every bit as gripping as those seen and heard by the audience. I own that I have had a mild case of the blahs overall this theater season. "Teddy Ferrara" is the cure for the cynical critic.
And that is no less the case when a production is fortunate enough to secure such a diverse and gifted cast, but more on that later. The plot, as it were, is so simply described in press materials as the tale of Gabe (a wisely subtle Liam Benzvi), an openly gay senior at an unidentified state university: "he runs the Queer Students Group, he finally has a single room and he recently started dating a great guy. But when a campus tragedy occurs that makes national headlines it...throws Gabe's world into disorder."
Gabe is a postmodern golden boy: smart, attractive and best friends with Tim (Josh Salt), the straight Big Man on Campus. The relationship is the subject of much good-natured ribbing amongst the men's circle of friends, which includes Tim's longtime girlfriend Jenny (Paloma Nozicka) and Gabe's new boyfriend Drew (a wonderfully Machiavellian Adam Poss).
It is the titular character of Teddy, played like a despairing cross between the fictional Hedwig and the late Anna Nicole Smith, whose ill fortune cracks the faint fissures in this group dynamic wide open. To expound upon how would be a great disservice to a narrative that every audience member needs to experience in order for the ensuing emotional punches to land as they are intended.
Who are the victims and who are the heroes in the melee that ensues? Is the purposely-unnamed University President (Patrick Clear, a master of the awkward conversation), a well-meaning man caught up in his own political ambitions, to be blamed? In an era of public servitude that calls for heightened self-awareness, a byproduct of the meta surveillance brought about by social media, camera phones and kamikaze bloggers, can anyone be faulted for extreme caution?
Or we can turn our attention to Poss' Gabe, a ambitious and possibly sociopathic campus newspaper editor who may or may not be using every relationship he's formed, past and present, for his own personal gain? Do we cast our eye upon Liam Benzvi's Gabe, a protagonist who manages to seem both naive and fantastically delusional? Perhaps most extraordinarily, Christopher Shinn's disciplined script leaves open the possibility that the awkward, attention-seeking Teddy himself owns some of the responsibility for the chaos.
For those readers who believe I may be overusing the rhetorical question, I would reply that it's impossible not to employ this device when examining "Teddy Ferrara." There are no clear answers or neat happy endings, nor is that Shinn's intent. There are so many topical elements incorporated into this drama, yet never at the expense of solid, eager storytelling.
Timely issues such as cyber bullying, the social advances of young adults historically relegated to the cultural fringes, sexual politics -- Shinn brings it all without leaving the least impression of effort. The hard work and artistry that goes into producing such an outcome must be admired.
It's important not to forgo awarding kudos to the other artistic players who make Goodman's "Teddy Ferrara" such a rousing success. Set Designer Lee Savage's does fine work, creating utilitarian yet versatile set pieces that help transform Goodman's smaller Owen Theater into a university quad, a gay nightclub and a quiet dormitory with seamless ease.
Lighting and Sound Design from Keith Parham and Richard Woodbury, respectively, blend expertly with Savage's vision. And of course Director Evan Cabnet is the maestro who brings word, cast and crew together to create this bewildering yet satisfying tapestry.
There are only two issues to lament with regard to the world premiere of the Goodman-commissioned "Teddy Ferrara:" a disappointingly short run that concludes in less than a month, and that I am not independently wealthy enough to purchase a series of return tickets. A production this finely complex warrants multiple viewings.
"Teddy Ferrara" runs through March 3 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 312-443-3811 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.