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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Cory Michael Smith, Cotter Smith, Jason Butler Harner, and Amanda Quaid.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Disapprovers of animal violence, whether in lighter or darker incarnations, may be repulsed at the image and implication of the title and logo of Mike Bartlett's new play. A pencil-sketch rooster, standing tall and aggressive, accompanied by a four-letter word that, in other contexts, is too racy for most newspapers to publish? Clearly this can mean only one thing, right? Wrong. Cock, which just opened at the Duke on 42nd Street, has nothing whatsoever to do with animal cruelty. No, it's focused on human cruelty, of the most withering and anxiety-inducing emotional kind. And it's tough to think of another recent play that has handled the subject as completely, as nakedly, or as rip-roaringly theatrically as this one.

For even though Bartlett and his director, James Macdonald, may not have crafted a stage work about literal cockfighting (at least in the non-pornographic sense), they've appropriated some crucial elements of the practice to demonstrate that people are not as far removed from their basest instincts as they might like to think. The set (designed by Miriam Buether) places the audience on plywood bleachers, on all four sides of a round arena so small, the most efficient way for performers to move around it (and each other) is to walk in circles. So when conflicts arise, which they do roughly every 30 seconds or so, the tension is palpable: You know, as intimately and totally as they do, that there's no escape, and that someone is destined to be ejected from the ring maimed at best and dead at worst.

And why not? These folks have plenty to be enraged about. John (Cory Michael Smith) has been in a lengthy relationship with another young-ish English man (known only as M, and played by Jason Butler Harner), but during a tiff runs off and sleeps with a woman (referred to as W, and played by Amanda Quaid), with whom he then develops feelings for. Or at least he thinks. He's only ever been interested in, and been with, males, so the experience is new to him, but she offers John a tenderness and understanding he can't get from his official boyfriend. He tries to juggle both for a while, but eventually circumstances force him to choose between the one who arouses him and the one who emboldens him, so someone is guaranteed to get hurt.

Bartlett does not extend his plot especially far beyond this—although John's father (Cotter Smith) does appear after a while to officiate the final confrontation between his son's warring lovers—but he doesn't need to. His exploration of the feelings this conflict engenders on all sides is shockingly rich: We see how John and M progress through sections of their relationship alternately erotic and heartbreaking, watch as John develops an appreciation of the female anatomy, and witness the intimate discussions on both sides that chart the desolation and despair any choice will inflict. Bartlett shines light into every corner of this struggle, often with a surprising angle toward humor that makes the four-way pain that fuels the play more bearable than it would otherwise have the slightest chance of being.

But the play's meaning is just as surely found in its silences, which Macdonald and his actors (all of whom are exquisite) conduct with the assuredness of operatic maestros. A single awkward touch between Harner and Smith illuminates the complexities of their relationship better than pages of dialogue could. (The show is lean, running barely 90 minutes, but never feels like it.) The slowly collapsing concentric circles in which John and W move in the build-up to their initial sexual encounter is pure modern romance at its rawest and most uncertain. Even the unassuming way John's father clasps his hands in resignation, when the dinner party at which his son is supposed to finally choose his partner, conveys a powerlessness and anguish that are absolutely elemental.

That the presentation is constructed to allow nothing to interfere with the drama, without a suggestive change of Buether's costumes or even a single set piece, only amplifies the evening's searing impact. All this conspires to make a literal edge-of-your seat enterprise, in which practically everything, from the grandest joke to the tiniest bit of staging (Smith's crouching at one point is as harrowing as anything you're likely to see this season), effortlessly works. Were I to insist on quibbling, I might take issue with a bit of Bartlett's futzing with time in the first several scenes; the bidirectional leapfrogging of the days and weeks in which M and W get to better know John and, by extension, each other, makes it difficult at first to know what is happening and when. But this is ultimately little more than a minor inconvenience.

To the (beautifully limited) extent that Bartlett's play makes a major misstep, the only potential candidate is the title. The problem isn't so much that it's provocative as that it is needlessly so: Even given its publicity image, it's not intended to conjure up images of male chickens, and the slang definition itself receives but the most passing of references. Like Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherfucker with the Hat, which premiered on Broadway last year, it's selling its imagined salaciousness ahead of its content. It doesn't need to. Cock's examination of the aching human soul and the horrific things we do to ourselves and each other in search of our uncertain ideals of love is more engaging and engrossing than any mere sexual escapade could ever be.

Through July 22
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
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