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Reviews Off-Broadway Published 18 May 2012

Cock

Duke Theatre ⋄ 1st May - 22nd July 2012

New York premiere of Mike Bartlett’s play.

Richard Patterson

It’s clear, as an audience member entering the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street for the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, that there’s something unique about what’s to come. Contained within the theatre’s usual auditorium is a cylindrical plywood structure with padded bench seating in the round, a circular green-carpeted playing space at its center.

As the play begins, our protagonist John and his longtime boyfriend M (aside from John, all other characters carry alphabetical names) are in the midst of a spat over John’s cooking, as well as his way of speaking and gesturing with his hands. In subsequent scenes, the two men realize their ways of thinking about things make them “fundamentally different people,” enough so that they should end their relationship and forge their own paths.

John (Cory Michael Smith, likable and impassioned) finds himself attracted, in spite of his predilections heretofore, to W (Amanda Quaid, top-notch), a woman with whom he crosses paths thanks to a series of chance eyefucks during their shared morning commutes. Though he’s thought of himself as strictly gay since college, finding positive reinforcement, even comfort, in the label, the very foundations of his self-identification begin to shift at their core when he realizes his feelings for W encompass not only emotional attraction but at least some degree of the physical as well.

Despite his desire to be with W, he still finds himself bound inextricably to M (Jason Butler Harner at his acerbic best), whom he refers to as “a brother,” even deigning to consult with him about his newfound feelings for W. Mixed up and confused, John ends up stringing both M and W along to the point at which it becomes clear that the outcome can be nothing other than a complete and utter mess.

Bartlett’s way of constructing the play is truly innovative for how it breaks down theatergoers’ expectations. The play shifts in time from scene to scene at the sound of a bell. When one conversation reaches an impasse, the bell sounds and a new scene begins. Within this tautly-paced structure, scenes, as strictly individuated units within the framework of the play, begin to dissolve into an almost filmic tapestry of emotionally-charged confrontations and exchanges.

Adding to the brisk pace of the piece, James Macdonald has directed the play without the use of props and with little in the way of showy stage business. Moments of sexual or confrontational contact are staged so that the actors never actually touch. Much of the action of the play is suggested rather than enacted, but rather than detracting from the proceedings this approach only serves to heighten the tension by placing our focus on the text of the play.

As John and W approach their first sexual encounter (his first with a woman), they inch along face-to-face in a circle as they talk about each others’ bodies. It’s a wholly engrossing way of approaching the topic of sex without resorting to gratuitous nudity. After all, Cock is a language-based play in the end. Bartlett, whose other plays have been staged at the Royal Court (My Child, Contractions), the Bush Theatre (Artefacts), and the National Theatre (Earthquakes in London, 13), has been so widely embraced in the U.K. of late because of his incisive way of tackling public and political issues through the lens of private, personal interactions.

In Cock, the primary subject is sexual orientation – both its fluidity and its constraints. When John came out in university, he recounts that his friends told him that “the real me was emerging, that I’d been repressed, and so I thought I must’ve done the right thing then.” Reexamining the constraints of these kinds of labels, he opines: “Gay straight, words from the sixties, sound so old, only invented to get rights, and we’ve got rights now…”

Bartlett’s play covers much of the same territory as The Pride, playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell’s excoriating, era-spanning gay drama, which also began its life at the Royal Court and played off-Broadway in 2010. Where The Pride, a finely written play, used its leaps in time to juxtapose the present day with the backwardness of the past with a that-was-then detachedness, however, Cock grabs an audience by the gut and admirably tackles issues of sexuality face-on.

The play’s climax comes when a planned meeting over dinner brings together John, M, W, and M’s father (F — you guessed it), who’s been called in to provide M with moral support in light of his son’s imminent breakup. Despite having taken some time to get used to M’s homosexuality, he’s an ardent supporter of his and John’s relationship and adamant about how foolish John’s being to reconsider what F considers his genetic wiring. “We think it’s simply down to the chemicals in your brain,” he says. ” They go one way you like girls, they go the other way you like men and so on. It’s how you’re born.”

“I mean if we don’t accept that,” he adds, “we’re back to what, how it was when I was growing up, prosecution, prison, cures, yes?” For F, whose entrance is admittedly a bit of a deus ex machina set up to drive the play to its thrilling close, it’s a matter of accepting society’s current mores to affirm homosexuality as a white-or-black reality. Ultimately though, for John — who is crippled by his own indecision — personal experience trumps the politicized constraints of sexual identity.

Pressure-cooked to perfection in the can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it atmosphere concocted by Miriam Buether’s spot-on set and James Macdonald’s potent staging, Cock is one of the finest plays to hit New York in years. Setting these four superlative performers into the voyeuristic environment of this in-the-round production only enhances an audience’s ability to relate to the sticky situations at hand; one can’t help but gauge fellow audiences members’ reactions throughout, making for a thrillingly collusive night at the theatre — smartly written and so provocative it’s sure to inspire conversation for days after.

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Richard Patterson

A graduate of New York University with a degree in Dramatic Literature, Richard was deputy theatre editor at musicOMH.com from 2008-2011 and New York Editor of Exeunt from 2011-2016. He is excited to continue on as a contributor. With a penchant for Sondheim, the Bard, and Beckett, as well as for new writing, theatergoing highlights include Fiona Shaw's Winnie in "Happy Days," Derek Jacobi's Lear, Jonathan Pryce in "The Caretaker," and Chiwetel Ejiofor's Othello at the Donmar. Richard's criticism has been published in The Sondheim Review.

Cock Show Info


Directed by James Macdonald

Written by Mike Bartlett

Cast includes Jason Butler Harner, Amanda Quaid, Cory Michael Smith, Cotter Smith

Link http://www.CockfightPlay.com

Running Time 1 hr, 30 min (with no intermission)

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