Cock Sure

In staging “Cock,” Mike Bartlett’s brashly titled play about love, boundaries, and indecision, the creators have taken the concept of “theater in the round” quite literally.

They have transformed the Duke theater into a sort of micro-arena, with five concentric tiers of seats looking down on a circular playing space about 20 feet across. The whole setup evokes the sort of cockfighting rings common in Britain before they were outlawed (the inhumane practice is still legal in some countries).

Which is entirely fitting, since this astonishingly potent piece of theater features a particularly vicious bout among John, a budding bisexual afraid of labels, M, his caustic, pushy boyfriend, and W, a clever cardigan-wearing vixen.

Poor John. Even after his head-spinning encounter with W, he confesses to M, “I still wack off to you every night.”

Enraged at John’s vacillation, M yells, “You’re small. You’re a half-arse. You’re a lame duck. You’re a stream. I want a river.”

The epic clash reaches its crescendo toward the end of the 90-minute, intermissionless drama at a dinner party where M and W meet for the first time, forcing John to face some fundamental truths. Entering the fray is M’s dad F, serving as sort of referee of the spectacle.

While the drama’s title and character names may err on the gimmicky side (I presume M stands for man, W for woman, and F for father), the conceit is anything but. Under the razor-sharp direction of James Macdonald, this production is stripped to the bone — no scenery or props, and costumes (by Miriam Buether) that could have come from the actors’ own closets. There is a lighting design credit (Peter Mumford) although the harsh, even light never seems to change.

All the better to view the true backdrop — the faces of audience members, alive with expression, which serve to intensify the experience. In keeping with the cockfight theme, scenes are divided by an audio signal, like a bell between fighting rounds.

Be forewarned that the arena, constructed of unfinished plywood with the thinnest of cushions for seats, is highly uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s all part of Macdonald’s evil plan, for pain and its avoidance seem the nucleus of the play. Make no mistake, “Cock” tackles some thorny issues rarely seen on stage.

For starters, the typical coming-out scenario is flipped on its head. Instead of a supposedly straight guy with a girlfriend succumbing to the power of cock, there’s a supposedly gay guy with a boyfriend falling for pussy. In the gay world, declaring you’re a bisexual is usually met with derision — it’s tantamount to saying you’re a Republican.

Bartlett has the smarts to recognize that life is not always black and white and is happy to explore shades of sexuality. And he does it with sensitivity and acerbic wit.

“I’ve never really looked at women,” John admits to W. “I find them a bit like water. When you want beer.” M dismisses W as a “blip” in John’s otherwise homosexual life.

During a brilliantly staged sex scene, which was surprisingly steamy even though no clothes are actually removed, there was quite a bit of nervous laughter in the audience. And horrified expressions.

Overall, the four-person ensemble delivers outstanding performances. As the scared and confused John, Cory Michael Smith delicately evokes the agony of not knowing what he wants and earns our empathy despite his dull personality. Jason Butler Harner tackles the M role with tart-tongued ferocity. His M is a brute, but we still detect a wounded boy inside, hungry for love. My only quibble is that some of his outbursts could be modulated for greater effect — a little stridency goes a long way.

Amanda Quaid invests W with just the right balance of intelligence, yearning, and sensuality. Cotter Smith makes the most of his undeveloped role as the levelheaded F.

“Cock,” which comes to Off Broadway after a sensational run at the Royal Court Theatre in London, recognizes that it’s tough to make a decision when you don’t know what you want or who you are. Do you boldly go where you’ve never gone before or take the path of least resistance and stick with the devil you know?

As for the overly provocative title (which “family” newspapers including the New York Times can’t even print, altering it to “The Cockfight Play”), it’s only natural to want to assign a specific meaning. It may be a reference to the male sexual organ. Perhaps it refers to the winner-take-all fight. Or maybe it’s what you do to a gun right before you pull the trigger.

As this fiercely original, wickedly taut drama asks, why do we have to choose just one?

COCK | The Duke | 229 W. 42nd St. | Through Jul. 22 | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 & 7 p.m. | $79.50 | dukeon42.org or 646-223-3010

 

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