Cock

nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
May 22, 2012

Cock, the title Mike Bartlett chose for his 2009 play currently receiving its U.S. premiere, is rife with associations, most of which are fully apparent the minute the play begins. James MacDonald’s spare staging of this intimate verbal spectacle takes place in a cockpit with the audience wrapped around in a plywood stadium designed by Miriam Buether. (MacDonald, with set designer Eugene Lee, used a similar technique to great effect in his 2004 production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number at NYTW in which the audience was seated in a late 19th century operating theater.) A cute over-confident young man (John) and his older male lover (listed in the program as “M”) enter the small arena and within the first three scenes, or rounds, we learn that their years-long relationship is on the rocks and John has met someone new: a woman.

The cover story here—an interrogation of our dichotomous view of male sexuality (What makes a straight man straight and a gay man gay? Are men truly capable of a well-balanced bisexuality? And how many parts nature and nurture go into this cocktail?)—is the least interesting aspect of this delightful and discomfiting play. Even the narrative twists and turns, the way our cocky/confused protagonist pits his old and new lovers against each other, at first separately and then together at an inevitable dinner party, is not particularly newsworthy.

What is so thrilling about watching Bartlett’s play is how we, the supposed spectators, are unwittingly dumped into the middle of John’s predicament. He cannot, or will not (and his willpower itself becomes a sort of separate character), decide which relationship will be the safest: the old familiar established one with his long-term boyfriend, or the new sexually-unknown one that allows/forces him to radically rebrand himself. The copious laughter coming from my very attentive fellow audience members (and I was told by one of the actors that we were a quieter bunch than usual!) was both a reaction to Bartlett’s wit and to our empathic moral free-fall as the characters, in comical abject horror, shed their assumptions along with their outmoded indications of dignity, in their attempts to avoid (or defer) heartbreak.

The propless/setless staging happily leaves us without distraction from the terrific ensemble, who make expert use of the wild and naked dialogue. Cory Michael Smith’s John is magnetic: handsome and irresistibly helpless, he easily and repeatedly wins over his lovers by recruiting them to fight his war against terror. As “M,” Jason Butler Harner is appealingly exasperated at John and at his own willingness to continually take John back. Amanda Quaid (“F”) is the beautiful young woman in question and her ebullience is as persuasive as her pragmatic arguments in favor of John’s heterosexual curiosity.

I would rather not reveal the nature and purpose of Cotter Smith’s character’s appearance, but I will say he is a much-needed moral compass: stern but gentle, if gracefully fallible. John, on the other hand, has relied almost exclusively on his anatomical compass to guide him, and not surprisingly it ultimately lets him down.

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