Teddy Ferrara (Donmar Warehouse)
Dominic Cooke's new production opened in London last night
American playwright Christopher Shinn was a bright spark in the Dominic Cooke era at the Royal Court, and here he is again, directed by Cooke, with his latest. It's a campus drama at a large state university where a "queer students group" is addressing the subject of gay suicides while spurning the cupcakes on offer at a meet-and-greet.
"Maybe gay guys don't want to be fat?", "But dykes don't care about that," is about as light, and as glib, as it gets, and that's the first scene. The guy who looked like an Abercrombie and Fitch model has killed himself. Drew (Oliver Johnstone), the student newspaper editor, is launching an enquiry. His friend, and short-term lover, Gabe (Luke Newberry), is running the sparsely attended queer group and standing, possibly, for student assembly president.
Into this political nexus, and perfervid atmosphere of concern in the campus administration – Matthew Marsh's fleshy and sincere-as-can-be college president bears an uncanny resemblance to former US vice-president Dick Cheney – comes geeky, miserable fresher Teddy Ferrara (Ryan McParland). His mouth is full of sores and his gay sex life confined to masturbatory jags on porn sites and web-cams.
The ironic point is that it's still hard to be gay and happy even as society bends over backwards, so to speak, to accommodate diversity, difference and even promiscuous life-style with soft soap and David Cameron-style pieties about gay marriage and inclusiveness. The activist hard line is spelled out by Pamela Nomvete's radical loudmouth Ellen, while the college president's thin membrane of polite tolerance is ripped apart by a student riot and his naked ambition to join the top table in the Senate laid bare.
Shinn is saying a lot about American society in this heated microcosm, but he also manages some tart and touching personal stuff between Drew and Gabe, and each of them with the straight hunk Tim (Nathan Wiley) whose girlfriend (Anjli Mohindra) is dragged unwillingly into the hard-drinking, dance night culture where Tim's sexual orientation comes under strain and scrutiny.
The gay diversity issues widen with the arrival at the meetings of Griffyn Gilligan's sweet and steely trans man, the most persuasively argumentative character on the stage, and Christopher Imbrosciano's wheelchair-bound loner whose complaint about not getting laid has the virtue of not sounding like special pleading. There's a double edge about most of these guys, and it's both clever and salutary the way Gabe's own political trajectory is revealed.
Keeping her counsel but niggling away at the college president is Nancy Crane's slyly inflected provost, an education exec of the old school just about afloat in the engulfing new demands and responsibilities of the internet-governed, sexually entitled new generation.
If, as Drew says, "gays are killing themselves all over the country," because of homophobia, bullying, sense of guilt, etc, then Shinn's play really does sound alarm bells. Trouble is, as Shinn, and this excellent production – designed by Hildegard Bechtler, lit by Paule Constable — suggests, there are no easy solutions, and some of them must lie within that victimised, self-pitying minority community itself.
Teddy Ferrara runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 December.