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New York City Theater

Duke Theater

Let’s get it out in the open. Despite what some “family newspapers” call it, the name of Mike Bartlett’s insightful play is “Cock.” Alternately, the more acceptable title, “Cockfight,” will do just as well for this poignant comedy that says so much about human relationships, about the differences between sex and love, and is very funny to boot.

This is, indeed, a cockfight, a bullfight, a boxing match, taking place in designer Miriam Buether’s in-the-round arena. Peter Mumford’s lighting design keeps us all illuminated as we stare down at the sparring match below to eavesdrop on the rising tension between John and his partner, identified as “M” for Male, acerbic, sharp-tongued, good-looking. Something’s bothering John, something inherent in their relationship, something that causes him to (horrors!) actually meet and make love to a woman, identified just as symbolically as “W.” The battle for possession is joined, each segment separated by a bell, as if this were truly a prizefight of several rounds.

Whom will John choose? What are the pluses and minuses of each pairing? How does M’s father (“F”) figure in the equation? Will the beef dinner be spoiled? Are they drinking a decent red wine?

John and M are “fundamentally different people.” When John reveals that he’s met and bedded a woman, M’s reaction is “It’s okay to like both – but not at the same time.” It’s a line as cutting as it is, in context, hilarious.

Despite their identification as initials, which makes them both universal and vague, M, W and F are more distinct than the vacillating John. Says W about John, “You’re like a picture drawn with a pencil. You haven’t been colored in.” What the playwright argues for is not one “lifestyle” over another, but the idea of choice, even as he has F speak in pedantic terms of the lack of choice that makes a person gay or not. “It’s respect. Maybe that’s what he went looking for,” says W about John.

Directed with a superb feel for nuance by James Macdonald, “Cock” features Jason Butler Harner as the pained M in a memorable performance. Cory Michael Smith is a yearning John, Amanda Quaid a non-nonsense W and Cotter Smith as F, a man who buries his own needs beneath a facade of empathy.

Although the evening is filled with not only four-letter words but sexual simulations, it is not in any way salacious. Nobody takes off clothing; the sex scenes are handfed through dialogue and having the actors move slowly about each other in ever-decreasing circles. This is not a sensationalized play but one that goes beyond sexual couplings into dealing with how we treat each other: as individuals or objects.

--David A. Rosenberg
Sept. 9, 2012

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