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We're sinking. You and me. I'm taking a life boat. — John about his 7-year relationship with a man known only as M.
Cock (noun) = male chicken; rooster; the male of any bird, especially the domestic kind: plumbing term for a hand-operated valve or faucet; in a firearm the position into which the cock, or hammer, is brought by being drawn partly or completely back, preparatory to firing; slang for penis and sexual relations between men.
Jason Butler Harner and Cory Michael Smith
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
A much buzzed about British play has landed at the Duke on 42nd Street. Same director and physical production but an American cast. While such cast changes don't always work to a play's advantage, this is a well chosen quartet whose Britspeak is better than acceptable. Time and ticket sales will tell if the play's provocative title, clever structure and the fascinating if somewhat gimmicky staging will make this the theatrical event in New York that it was in London.

For theater journalists whose publications might consider Mike Bartlett's Cock to have a title that dare not speak its name in print, the press agents suggested referring to it as The Cockfight Play. A cockfight is indeed an apt metaphor for Mike Bartlett's Olivier Award winning dramedy about the battle for one man's affection by his long-term and new love.

The Playbill cover features an image to illustrate one definition for that possibly titillating or off-putting title. However, Bartlett's play touches on every one of the above listed dictionary definitions for that 4-letter word.

The roosters are M (Jason Butler Harner) an John (Cory Michael Smith), a pair of male lovers whose 7-year relationship is in crisis. The bullets to be released by the symbolic firearm's cock or hammer are words — precise, smartly character and situation defining words. Even the plumbing related definition ties in with the domestic details of M and John's relationship. The more vulgar slang terms come into play through the sexual relations between M and John but between John and W (Amanda Quaid). Her being a woman exacerbates the M/John crisis and takes the sexual identity issue into more universal territory anyone can identify with: Getting in touch with what type of person one wants to be and deciding how and with whom to best achieve contentment.

Bartlett's smartly structured script, with its incisive and often quite funny dialogue has elements of Harold Pinter's Betrayal and the word play that peppers Tom Stoppard's work. That's not to say the writing is derivative, for Bartlett is very much a playwright with his own distinctive voice.

James Macdonald, who directs in New York as he did in London, has again created a tense, fast moving production. The battle to make the indecisive about everything John (he even has difficulty deciding what to wear) to commit to one or the other of his lovers does indeed have all the earmarks of a cockfight — or, as M puts it "the ultimate bitch fight."

As Macdonald had Eugene Lee transform the New York Theatre Workshop auditorium into a medical operating theater for Caryl Churchill's A Number, he had Miriam Buether, who also designed the London production, reconfigure The Duke to establish the look and atmosphere of a cock fighting arena. A circular, pale wood wall surrounds the theater which usually has an open stage with raked orchestra seating and a small balcony. Within that wall five rows of bleacher benches surround a small circular stage, its floor painted green. Overhead is a large lighting fixture matching the wood of the wall and seats from which Peter Mumford throws a bright light on the actors. No lights out over the audience either.

While Buether is also credited as costume designer, there are no costumes and, except for the elaborate restructuring of the theater, there are no props. If the actors wear anything other than ordinary street clothes, we hear about it from the dialogue. Despite the importance of the sexual relationships no one ever removes their clothes. In the same way we get a picture of where we are (most of the time the setting is the apparently spacious apartment with a garden owned by M). For the play's climactic dinner party the actors simply stand as they would seat themselves around the table.

The scene shift or end of each round announces itself with the ringing of a gong, and what follows that gong is often a replay of the events just argued about. All this maximal minimalism has nothing to do with budget constraints but goes a long way towards heightening the aura of experiencing something fresh and different despite a plot that's hardly the new new thing.

The story — or rather, the fight — begins with John and M trying to deal with their deteriorating relationship which has been brought to a head by John's involvement with a woman. It culminates with a dinner party hosted by M, and attended by John, W and an unexpected last minute guest, M's father (Cotter Smith). The main dish is expertly prepared by M. It's beef, a probably an intentionally sly hint that he has something to beef about. No wonder that the table talk will consist of sex, lies and angry words, and end up leaving a lovingly prepared cheese cake uneaten,

It takes topnotch performances to bring out the nuances and humor in the dialogue that must also evoke the props and costumes. Cory Michael Smith is compelling as the cynosure character who Hamlet-like can't figure out who to be or not to be, or who to be and not to be with. His tendency to get himself into trouble with lies and ill-conceived editing of facts is illustrated by his trying to soften the blow of his involvement with a woman by describing her to M as "manly," which becomes something of a running joke.

Amanda Quaid's anything but manly W subtly conveys the loneliness that makes her willing and eager to enter into a fraught relationship with a gay man who's never been interested in women. As he puts it "I've never really looked at women I find them a bit like water when you want beer. Or like a minimalist house. With nothing in it, when you're someone who's really into stuff." As she pungently explains her attraction, "Some people might think you were scrawny but I think you're like a picture drawn with a pencil. I like it. You haven't been coloured in, you're all Wire."

But Quaid also displays an aggressive possessiveness and impatience with John's shilly-shallying, as when she tells him "There's so much emotional crap that orbits you, you collect it like space junk, and it's always flying around you, and I'm tired, I'm tired of avoiding it all." Smith and Quaid interact beautifully. Their first sexual encounter is one of the most erotic and also amusing love scenes I've seen in a long time. The two actors, fully clothed but with their emotions laid bare, step around each other like dancers, but each step bringing them closer together.

Good as Smith and Quaid are, the richest performance comes from Jason Butler Harner as John's dominating, emotionally volatile older partner. It's M who is most distraught about John's cheating on him and the possibility of their breakup. His razor sharp tongue is a cover-up for extreme insecurity. While he's witty and smart, and has a successful career as a stock broker, he's terrified of being alone which is why he invites his supportive dad to that confrontational dinner with John and his not so mannish lady love.

Cotter Smith, who previously was terrific as a quite different father of a gay man in Next Fall, is again outstanding. As M's conventional, grace-saying father, he represents the paradoxes of modern life as he fights valiantly to keep his son from being deserted by his lover.

For all John's Hamlet-like indecision, Cock is not a play for the ages. Despite its smart structure and writing, it relies a bit too much on the deceptively bare bones staging and the gay man and other woman instead of man twist to give it that unique theatrical experience buzz. That said, I do recommend it as an intriguing theatrical outing — but with this caveat: Though the bleacher seats have pillows, they're thin. Those benches are hard on the back as well as the backside, even if you sit in the last row which allows you to lean against the encircling wall.

The arrival of Mr. Bartlett's play coincides with the premiere of his Love, Love, Love reviewed last week by our London critic. (the review) To read her review of the London production of Cock go here.

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by James Macdonald
Cast: Jason Butler Harner (M), Amanda Quaid (W), Cory Michael Smith( (John), Cotter Smith (F)
Scenic and Costume design: Miriam Buether
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Sound: Darron L West
Stage Manager: Martha Donaldson
From 5/01/12; opening 5/17/12
Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm and 7pm.
Running time: 90 minutes (Approximately, the press performance reviewed ran closer to 1 hour and 40 minutes)
The Duke on 42nd Street646-223-3010
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/13 pres preview
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