By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Lilly Lampe
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
British playwright Mike Bartlett likes a good fight: between husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, Europe and the Middle East. He likes a bad one better. In the case of Cock, his visceral, funny, anguished 2009 play making its American premiere at the Duke on 42nd Street, he pits boy against girl, cock against cunt. Gloves off.
Yet Cock is less a battle of the sexes than a battle of sexual orientation. After breaking up with his longtime boyfriend M (Jason Butler Harner), John (Cory Michael Smith) falls into bed with a woman, W (Amanda Quaid). Unable to choose between them, M and W decide to force the issue during a dinner party, which also includes M's father, F (Cotter Smith). This soiree seems Bartlett's contemporary version of the Ibsen discussion scene—though this particular discussion would likely have reduced Ibsen to apoplexy.
James Macdonald, who helmed the play's Royal Court debut, uses the same set design, a small circular stage with tiered seating on all sides, an arrangement that resembles, appropriately, an anatomical theater or a gladiatorial ring with some unusually slim combatants. No lights change, no props or set pieces appear. According to the dialogue, food is eaten, penetration achieved, but no one performs these actions. Only a short, sharp tone—like the bell after boxing rounds—indicates the transition from one scene to the next. Unlike his King Lear, which appeared at the Public last fall, Macdonald offers a lucid and focused production. If the first scenes of Cock sometimes slack, the dinner party, with its flailing savagery, redeems any torpor in the lead-in.
Bartlett constructs most of the play in simple sentences and broken phrases, thrusting his characters toward a fierce and deliberate inarticulacy. Yet he's simultaneously a prolix writer, never content to use a single word when a raft of synonyms will do. (His terms for hetero intercourse are especially lively.) In his works, Bartlett enjoys showing how, whether armed with our best intentions or our worst, we invariably fail and wound one another. M describes this dinner as the "ultimate bitch fight," but no one, save the audience, wins.