Mike Bartlett’s vicious Bull, a nasty one-act dissection of office politics mapped onto a bullfight, represents a companion to his earlier Cock (2009), a full-length battle royale of sexual politics whose form refers to cockfighting. Is Story, about a sadistic fiction workshop and based on bear-baiting, lurking in Bartlett’s laptop?
Presented as the opener of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59 E 59, Bull uses many tricks you’d expect from a young male British playwright of the Jez Butterworth school. As three executives wait for the start of a meeting with their boss, Tony (Adam James) and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) conduct a wanton, brutal mindfuck against the third, Thomas (Sam Troughton). They ask him many personal questions and use his answers to belittle him. They insult his intelligence, his looks, his professional achievements; they relentlessly bully him into putting his face against Tony’s impressive abs. Thomas resists a bit, but metaphorically speaking he has no horns, and many knives in his back.
The whole exercise comes off like a grueling season finale of The Office edited for only the uncomfortable laughs. While Bartlett means for the play to seem surreal, he’s allowed the high concept to corral him into a predictable, blunt metaphor for corporate life. He also takes the shallowest possible view of a fairly obvious metaphor, reducing the spectacle to a brutal takedown that lacks any trappings of grandeur, artistry, controversy, elegance, or even tight red pants.