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May 19, 2012

"Cock" is Titillating—And in Just the Right Way

Some people are going to be drawn to the terrific new play that just opened at The Duke on 42nd Street because of its titillating title: Cock. Others may want to see it because of the refreshingly authentic way in which it deals with homosexuality. A few will even go because they know the play won an Olivier for its London run two seasons ago. And, as reviews start to appear for this production, some may want to see it for the marvelous performances of its four-member American cast.  But the real reason true theater lovers should see Cock is because it celebrates the essence of theater in its most elemental form. 

Playwright Mike Bartlett’s theater directions call for no set and no props.  The costumes are stripped-down versions of basic street clothes: jeans, shirt, a simple sweater, a slip of a dress. All that’s left are the actors, the text and James Macdonald’s assured direction which combine into a deeply gratifying evening of theater.

The story goes like this:  a young guy named John has been living with his slightly older male lover for several years when he meets a woman and unexpectedly falls in love with her. Both want John and each, M, as the man is called, and W, as the woman is, tries to force him to choose between them and to define who or what he is. 

It’s a romantic triangle with a contemporary twist but what really makes Cock enthralling is the way in which the story is told. The plot uncoils in a series of short intense scenes, each punctuated by the sound of a ringing bell, like the one that signals the end of a round of boxing or wrestling—or a cockfight.

In fact, the audience is arrayed around the actors in an arena-like seating space. In keeping with the show’s minimalism, the plywood benches have thin cushions and no backs, save for those in the last row. But even the people sitting there at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended were leaning forward, drawn in by the unvarnished potency of the emotional combat on display.

It’s a real workout for the actors, who have nothing to hide behind and who, because they are performing in the round, must maintain intense focus.  It would be foolish to single one of them out and since there are only four of them, I don’t have to.

Ben Whishaw, a rising star in British theater, played John in London and Bill and I had lamented that he hadn’t come here with it, as he’d done with The Pride a few years ago (click here to read my review of that).  But I can’t imagine Whishaw being any better than Cory Michael Smith. 

The character of John could easily come off as a narcissistic pain-in-the-ass as he flips back and forth between his lovers but Smith creates empathy for John’s inner turmoil, his unwillingness to label himself as gay, straight or even bisexual and his quiet insistence that he just wants to love whomever he loves. 

Jason Butler Harner has a showier role as M and at moments his bluster feels too put-on. Until you realize that’s exactly the point: M is trying to insulate himself behind a fa├žade of pretended strength and it’s wrenching when Harner lets it crumble. 

At the same time, Amanda Quaid makes it impossible not to agonize for W. In a finely calibrated performance, Quaid makes it clear that W is no stereotypical fag hag but a woman who deeply believes that she has met her soul mate and is equally convinced that she will never find another if she lets him go.

The smallest role, M’s supportive father, is played by the always-reliable Cotter Smith. This is the fourth impressive performance I’ve seen Smith give in just the past year and he’s never been better (click here to read a profile of him).

Now Cock isn’t perfect.  There’s some unnecessary repetition towards the end of its 90-minute running time. And the show isn’t for everyone.  I saw a couple of men across the arena from me who looked as though they wished they’d been able to talk their wives into seeing Rock of Ages

But Cock touched me. It made me think and it made me laugh (Bartlett leavens all the serious stuff with big heapings of humor).  And that's as stimulating an evening as any theater lover could want.

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