Cock By Mike Bartlett
Directed by David Muse
At Studio Theatre to June 22
A man, a woman, and the man torn between them

The Rule of Three: A man and a woman spar for John’s affections.

John has something special. Something that causes his romantic interests to throw good sense to the wind, to put up with his crippling indecisiveness, his inability to say no to anyone’s face, his tendency to lead everyone on. It’s not until midway through Mike Barlett’s Cock that one of John’s two frustrated paramours decides to wonder aloud just what it could be that gives him such magnetism, what outsized attribute could draw people so helplessly into his flawed, shaky orbit.

No, it’s not that. Minds out of the gutter, all of you.

John (Ben Cole) answers that question, posed by W (Liesel Allen Yeager) with a resigned sigh, and it’s a distinctive moment in that it’s one of the few times in Cock when he answers a direct question with a direct and simple answer. The rest of the time he spends either anxiously, manically trying to tell others what they want to hear, or collapsing into himself to avoid confrontations.

The first third of Cock sets up John’s breakup and subsequent reconciliation with M (Scott Parkinson), the older man he’s been in a relationship with for years. The second third concerns his brief affair with—importantly, for the first time in his life—a woman, W. It concludes with a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scenario that piles on awkwardness upon awkwardness, bringing not just those three together, but also including the fourth wheel addition of F (Bruce Dow)—the less revealed about his role, the better. As the conflicts come to a head, John’s agency and ability to decide what he wants or even who he is eventually is reduced to nil, the shortest side of an acute, sharp-edged triangle.

Studio Theatre’s production of Bartlett’s Olivier Award–winning play highlights the competition inherent in this battle for John’s wavering affections. Designer Deb Booth’s set puts these emotional gladiators into a simple dirt ring, lit from above with a row of harsh fluorescent bulbs. This is a cockfight with M and W as preening roosters both looking to rule John’s roost.

Director David Muse minimizes contact between the actors and rarely allows them to sit still, even when their dialogue indicates they’re touching, or that they’re sitting at a table. As a result, they are nearly always prowling and circling each other in the ring, as if in a constant act of sizing one another other up for battle. The play’s one sex scene is made explicit through the dialogue, but carries through to climax without either actor ever touching the other.

Bartlett’s often hilarious text examines the fluidity of sexuality, making John confront what things he always assumed about himself, only to find it’s not as simple as a gay/straight binary when he not only sleeps with a woman, but actually likes it. Attraction has so many more facets to it than just what parts insert where, and questions of practicality, “normalcy,” emotional supportiveness, suitability for the future—all of these overwhelm John to the point of paralysis in the face of the winner-take-all combat surrounding him.

That paralysis is the play’s greatest hurdle, because Bartlett is trying to build an emotional narrative around a character who is unable to connect with his feelings. He’s not just frustrating to M and W, but he’s maddening to watch from outside the ring as well. John’s arc is one that flatlines into complete emotional inertia. But it’s a hurdle that Bartlett’s quick-witted style easily clears. Even in the midst of crippling his protagonist, one can sense the playwright in the center of the ring, slyly asking, are you not entertained?

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