Walking into the Donmar with the seating closed in, the stage set with a circle of wooden school chairs and the colour drained from a metallic coloured set and cold lighting, you get the sense that what you're about to see is an "issue" play, such is the atmosphere created. The problem is that two and a half hours later, you leave still wondering which of the issues that have been thrown at you were meant to have stuck.
It's a shame that a piece which seems to have started off with so much to say about such an important theme has ended up saying very little about too many themes.
Ostensibly, Teddy Ferrara is based on the real life events surrounding American student Tyler Clementi, who, in 2010, took his own life after discovering that his roommate had been spying on his gay 'encounters'. The eponymous character goes through the same experience in the first act of the play and we see how this impacts the students and faculty at his University as they try to accept and learn from the culture of bullying towards minorities that this has thrown into the headlights. So far, so simple and - whilst arguably a little passé for a London theatre audience who likely have a more advanced understanding of equality than most - so worthy a subject to deal with. However, in reality, this story seems to exist here mainly as a subplot for which to carry the other characters and their individual life issues; not really about Teddy, but rather about their own back stories. Yes, bullying and suicide are indeed explored, but so is neurosis, loneliness, trust, politics, labelling, disability, hypocrisy, self pity, sex, closetedness... I could go on...
For me the piece is ultimately an exploration of how non-verbal communication can lead to isolation and a lack of self identity in today's world. I don't know if the playwright, Christopher Shinn, set out to make this point, but his writing definitely alludes to that. There are constant references to "texting" both as a means of keeping couples together and driving them apart, whilst in face to face communication, they find it difficult to commit or emote. A Facebook community is seen as the most natural and effective way to bring people together (exemplified by the lack of attendance at the initial LBTGQ group "real life" meeting and the ongoing forgetfulness to invite outsider Teddy to join that all-important Facebook group).
And it isn't only the references to non-verbal communication that make this point. Stylistically the dialogue between characters is at times clunky and lacking of any reality of how people speak - making it difficult for the actors to convince us that there are any real relationships (or even listening) taking place ("I think I'm depressed. Will you rub my feet?", "We can go for a walk (but) it doesn't have to be a 'walk'" make you wince rather than believe in any building of emotion). However when it comes to monologues or speeches - particularly by Matthew Marsh as the University President wanting to run for Senate - the characters suddenly come alive. The fact that they only seem real when they're not listening adds to the feeling that we're only comfortable when in our own world, whilst inexorably lonely for not knowing what our role in the wider world should be.
With so many subplots going on - and the lack of belief we have for the relationships playing out in front of us - the many scenes are raced on and off stage with plot time moving forward in the flick of a lighting cue, giving us little time to catch up. It starts to feel like a feature length episode of a soap opera that wants to give air time to every theme it possibly can - at the expense of anything getting the time it really needs or deserves.
The times it does grab you are when Teddy himself is on stage in the first act ("Ted - that's what I call myself on Facebook"; giving another nod to our strive to create our 'selves'). Ryan McParland demands your focus as he embodies this ultimately dislikeable character - dislikeable not for any real reasons other than his awkward gait, his mouth cankers that mean globs of spittle appear on his lip and slop onto the floor, and his lack of social conversational skills (inappropriately offering sex as the way to connect with other gay men he's just met as he does in his online webcam site persona where he has seen that people seem to listen to him providing they can then watch him masturbate. The importance of anonymous sex for gay men is another of the many big and interesting subjects that is touched on from time to time - but as one of the many it also doesn't really go anywhere). McParland creates his own pace when on stage and it is his scenes that are the most believable - there is no actorly or verbal awkwardness in his betrayal of the character's awkwardness and his performance is all the better for this. There are big things ahead for the actor and his performance alone makes the play worth seeing - I wouldn't be surprised by an award or two for him, if not for the play itself.
It's a shame that a piece which seems to have started off with so much to say about such an important theme has ended up saying very little about too many themes. The challenges to our culture, the lessons we could learn, the emotions it could create, are all opportunities that have been missed by feeding us way too many ingredients to fully digest any with satisfaction. I don't know if the cast are struggling with this too but at the curtain call they seemed to display an air of sadness as they took their bow that unfortunately wasn't shared by a somewhat unemotional and confused audience.