Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl. It’s an age-old tale, comforting in its familiarity, but in the case of Cock, famed English playwright Mike Bartlett’s latest play, this boy-meets-girl story is complicated by its protagonist’s ambiguous homosexuality, not to mention his relentless self-doubt. The play’s controversial name was conceived halfway into the single week during which it was written and is proving problematic for many publications, including The New York Times, which has had to honor the 1896 mandate of publisher Adolph S. Ochs to “keep it clean.” Originally opened at London’s Royal Court Theater in late 2009, Cock sold out its entire run before its first preview and won an Olivier Award (the British equivalent of Broadway’s Tony Awards) the following March. Its off-Broadway production features a different cast, but with the same London creative team, including director and former Royal Court associate director, James Macdonald.

This story of a love triangle gets the 21st century treatment, consisting of John, his new-found female love interest, W, and his long-time boyfriend, M. The play’s subheading, “a good relationship is worth a good fight,” holds a double meaning, referring to W and M’s feud, while also alluding to its protagonist’s internal struggle to reconcile between his homoerotic past and his new foray into heterosexual relations. In keeping with the connotations of its name, Cock is provocative in both the acuity of its writing and the simplicity of its staging. Without the aid of props or scenery, the play relies on the sound of a low ringing tone to indicate shifts in time and dialogue, which more than anything else seems to be a function of convenience in allowing the script to maintain a logical progression while foregoing the tedium of intermediary dialogue. It’s technically effective, but more often than not, seems to interrupt the momentum of exchanges.

Amanda Quaid, known recently from her Broadway debut opposite Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, brings levity and optimism through her beaming confidence in the persuasiveness of feminine wiles atypical of English female propriety and submissiveness. Her performance balances between the joyful and tragic spectrum of her character’s enthusiasm to both the annoyance and amusement of viewers. In contrast, M, as the scorned lover played by Jason Butler Harner, who appears in film and television (most recently as Deputy Warden E.B. Tiller in the TV series Alcatraz) in addition to on and off-Broadway productions, is openly tragic. Harner appears to be on the verge of tearful outbursts from beginning to end, and tends to play into the emotional sensitivity of his character to an overdramatic fault. Equally distracting is the over-exaggerated tension constructed between John and M building up to an almost-kiss with an extended silence brought on by their spinning in each other’s arms, eyes locked, until finally they surrender to it with a tearful hug. By dramatizing it, the scene seems to reinforce the idea that male homosexual intimacy is taboo. Harner must negotiate between his character’s pre-existing relationship history with John and the unexpected threat of an incomparable opponent. The central character of John — and as an aside, the only character designated with a name — is plagued by his own indecision to choose between two lovers of the opposite sex, and subsequently, two identities. Cory Michael Smith, with only one other off-Broadway credit to his name, powerfully portrays torturous indecision, exasperated and hopelessly confounded between his head and his heart. As an audience, we can’t help but empathize with John’s turmoil as the stakes of his deception escalate beyond his own control. Unsettling, but universally experienced, John is beset with choosing who he loves and what he is — neither being the result of choice to begin with.

Given President Obama’s recent public endorsement of gay marriage, Cock strikes with a timely force, wherein John rejects submitting himself to a bisexual label and firmly equates his heterosexual and homosexual loves exclaiming, “the words from the ’60s feel old.” Bearing significantly on further imbuing that “the personal is political” is M’s father, played by Cotter Smith, who affirms John’s openly mixed-up sexuality as a triumph in contrast to the repression and persecution experienced by his older generation. This exchange serves as a soap-box moment for Bartlett to the detriment of the performance’s tone and pacing, including the tired proclamation that being gay is not a choice.

The play’s construction of intimacy powerfully affects its audience, exhibiting a paradoxical nature both explicit about sex without being directly overt. Although the actors remain clothed, sexual acts remain tantalizingly verbalized so as to force the audience to imagine for itself what is supposed to be happening in front of them. It’s captivating and a veritable cock-tease as John and W face each other and begin to slowly step around in a circle, progressively moving in closer, as W describes, “It goes in here. In it goes,” until finally their heads meet, prompting W’s moan of satisfaction; candid, but not crude.

Cleverly configured as a theater in-the-round, Cock enhances its own reception by making the audience both bear witness to, and feel as though they’re part of the unfolding human cockfight. This deliberate blurring between the play and its audience is further made evident by its meta-referential dialogue. Afforded the actors’ point of view, at times, we seem to be directly addressed, “you can’t stop looking,” or in the case of M’s father, spoken for on our behalf, “is it just me, or are we waiting for something to happen?” In this way, we’re incorporated into the mounting tension of John misleading W and M, and simultaneously subject to John’s uncertainty, not knowing ourselves how it will all end.

It is not until the play’s climactic dinner party that the three torrid characters converge for the first time in “the ultimate bitch fight,” and a final resolution is promised in time for dessert. Audiences will appreciate seeing our most innate impulses put on full display in a stripped-down battlefield of love marked by long contemplative pauses, impassioned pleas, and vulnerability. Bartlett’s use of his script as a podium for politics is well-intentioned, but ultimately, overdone in precedent works to the effect of diluting the authenticity of his actors’ performances.

“Cock” opens on May 17 and can be seen through July 22nd at The Duke on W. 42nd Street, New York, NY. For more information visit: or call 646-223-3010.

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