The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Autumn-Winter 2015
This new American play about the lives and deaths of homosexual university students holds your attention and involvement throughout, but weakens as it goes along and you begin to sense a very old-fashioned quality to it and to wonder if it is really about what it thinks it's about.
At a large American university, members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer Alliance, along with other students of unconventional sexuality, wrestle with personal, political and moral issues – experiences painful enough to drive some to suicide.
Attempts by concerned students and a sympathetic university administration to make things better are hampered by the size and complexity of the problem and by the sometimes counter-productive agendas of some of the individuals.
The gay editor of the campus newspaper is not above twisting stories to drive events in the direction he wants, while the straight university President twists himself into a pretzel trying to bend over backwards to help these troubled kids while working within financial constraints and serving his own political ambitions.
A degree of bed-hopping among the key characters doesn't help matters, as ever-shifting alliances and resentments prevent much unified action.
Playwright Christopher Shinn and director Dominic Cooke tell the story clearly and keep us involved and sympathetic as even the most obstructive or morally dubious characters are shown to be driven by their demons and not malice.
And yet the play loses power as it goes along. For one thing, you begin to hear vague echoes of things you've seen before, until you realize that you could remove some contemporary references (like the ubiquitous smart phones and webcams) and make the key characters all African-American rather than gay, and wind up with a play that could have been written fifty years ago (as several similarly structured plays were).
Or make them Jewish and the play could have been written seventy years ago. Even the dissection of the special pains of being homosexual harks back to Mart Crowley and Harvey Fierstein.
I am not in any way suggesting that the subject does not merit – indeed, demand – continued statement and exploration. But Christopher Shinn has not found anything new to say or any new way of saying it, and therefore adds too little to the conversation.
This limitation is compounded by the suspicion that Shinn is somehow missing the point.
As the university President says in a throw-away line, if you take twenty thousand or more young people away from home for the first time and simultaneously turn them loose in near-total freedom and put them under the pressure of constantly being graded, a number are going to crack, and a smaller (one hopes) number commit suicide.
The editor's political agenda and a reporter's moral problems with writing the slanted stories he's assigned are clearly complicated by their sexuality but are not defined or bound by it.
And even the sad story of the title character (a nerdy freshman only tangentially connected to the main action) primarily reminds us that some young people might come to university already bearing psychological or emotional burdens unconnected to their sexuality.
Shinn's play, despite most of the characters being gay, never really convinces us that their pains and problems are unique to or even primarily driven by being gay.
Luke Newberry as the amiable GLBTQA leader, Oliver Johnstone as the devious editor, Matthew Marsh as the sympathetic but oily President and Ryan McParland as the vaguely creepy Teddy stand out in a large cast that is otherwise uneven.
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