Cock. Yes, cock, and not the male version of hen. It’s just the apt name of Mike Bartlett’s latest play that opened at the Duke this month. "Cock" deals with a young lad’s philandering ways behind his male lover’s back with, of all things, a woman.
"Cock" is an intimate, one-act play concentrated in a furiously intense 90 minutes, and some of the best acting this city has seen. The director James Macdonald manages to command a warpath and liquefaction with the actors that gives this play a brazen honesty that boils somewhere from within.
Forget the standing ovations -- actual deserved ones -- and the rave reviews from London where the play won various awards, and experience theatre as it was once intended. The bare essentials are brought to fore with an intimate connection with the three actors, the audience in a coliseum-style space and a reminder why theatre has a class and caliber with which film just couldn’t compete. The Duke takes on a bareness that truly gives the actors enough breathing space, and more, with bleachers and a small round green-screen-grass green arena.
The center of attention, John (played sprightly by Corry Michael Smith) finds himself embroiled in a mess that seemingly has absolutely no way for him to escape. To him, his gayness appears to be wearing off and he questions whether he can choose the very essence of his nature.
This questioning results in more than a wet dream as he grabs hold of a serendipitous moment in a coffee shop with a woman, W (played sharply by Amanda Quaid). She feels attracted to his ambivalence and "halo of disorganization" to take her into a flurry of uncharted territory and so pursues John full throttle.
The chance encounter turns into a full-blown sexual affair and the characters engage in an all out erotic mating ritual, albeit fully clothed. A second sexual interaction where the actors throw around some hilarious dirty talk: "it goes in here", "do your worst" turns John’s world completely upside down as he realizes just how much he enjoys the female form, yet yearns for men, in particular his long time lover, M (played by Jason Butler Harner).
M is witty and in love and although an overbearing force truly a bonfire of comfort for young John. Unfortunately the imaginary noose around John’s neck appears to tighten as he slips down and away from his fortified life.
W’s demonic side soon reveals itself as she powerfully tries to take full possession of John and demands that he break up with his partner and embrace a "normal life" with her. John reveals his infidelity to M and promises him that he will end this sojourner immediately. But his promises to both partners sound bleak and his discomfort and incertitude is shuck perfectly by Corry Michael Smith.
M invites John and W over for dinner to have the "ultimate bitch fight" in hopes of exposing the newfound intimacy and persuade John to return to a life with him. As backup, he also invites his father (played by Cotter Smith) to act as buffer or mediator of this shamble. M of course has a sneaky agenda and starkly announces over dinner that John has left because "he was looking for respect." Ouch.
The threads are so unraveled already that the characters can barely pull themselves apart anymore, their lives thick with unhappiness, anger and the poison of resentment. All three actors carry this glutinous emotion so perfectly with them and it gets disseminated with a painstakingly vibrancy. The emotions come as torrents and John’s crisis of identity becomes part of the audience’s reality.
As M and W wait for John to choose them, to find himself, to give over everything he has, they vie and he cascades between the role of child and adult. John cannot "remember his own voice" and believes that words like gay and straight are archaic belonging to a struggle in the ’60s, as he loses himself completely. Plaintive moments of silence gave John’s plight realness as some serious weeping in the audience demonstrates.
The story line felt fresh and allowed for a whole reversal of the usual "I’m not actually gay" story line that audiences have seen too often. Moments of discussions about "normalcy" and "normality" seem so pivotal in this day and age where gayness is normal, not seen as special or unique anymore but just part of the way the world all fits together, hopefully embracing everyone.
The extremely pared down "Hunger Games" arena is the design of Miriam Buether who adapted the seating area to accommodate just less than 200 seats. The audience becomes a very valid secondary focus as the brightly lit bleachers expose them as much as the actors who are creating an amazing, curious intimacy.
"Cock" runs through June 28 at the Duke, 229 West 42nd Street. For info and tickets call 646-223 3010 or visit http://new42.org/duke/duke_contact.html