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Review: A love triangle turns into prize fight battle in the emotionally edgy play 'Cock'
NEW YORK (AP) ' A cockfight is a contest between two gamecocks, often conducted in a circular arena called a cockpit. That partially explains the wry title and unusual staging of Mike Bartlett's edgy play, "Cock," but of course, there's more to it.
While much of the focus is on confrontations among characters in a love triangle, the thoughtful, Olivier Award-winning play, which premiered in London in 2009, is more deeply about the folly of forcing someone to limit his sexual identity.
The painfully funny, intense production that opened Thursday night off-Broadway at The Duke on 42nd Street is crisply staged by James Macdonald, who also directed the London show. A series of verbal bouts are enacted in a no-frills, small plywood arena, ringed by the audience on bleacher-like seats quite close to the action. The floor is green, like the felt on a game table ' perfect staging for the all-too-recognizable self-deception of the characters.
Each scene is signaled by the muffled ding of a bell, in keeping with the prizefight motif. The very fine cast members skirmish over the sole possession of John, (a charismatic Cory Michael Smith), surely one of the most indecisive characters ever to squirm onstage for 90 minutes.
John's often-caustic, condescending, older male lover of seven years, (designated only as M), is played with brio and sensitivity by Jason Butler Harner. During a time-out in their relationship, John is astounded when he falls in love with a woman (Amanda Quaid as W, warm and sweetly steel-willed in pursuit of her man.) When John strings them both along, M forces a showdown, where M and W each run the risk of winning the battle but losing the war.
Smith masterfully pantomimes the anguish of John's indecision, often to comical effect, as his two happily separate worlds inevitably collide. Actor Cotter Smith is nicely blustery as M's pushy father, (F), who barrels in as his son's backup for the hostile convergence of M and W. Bartlett has written a wonderfully nightmarish dinner party that quickly disintegrates into what a nervous M frankly calls "the ultimate bitch fight."
Quaid does a lovely, subtle job as W's patience gradually breaks down when John seems uncommitted to their future plans. Gently trying to get John to make up his own mind amid the bullying of M and the guilt-tripping, manipulative interjections of F, she urges him, "Be yourself," to which he replies despairingly, "But I have absolutely no idea who that is."
The clever staging in the round creates a true arena but has some drawbacks for the audience, as many times they're watching the back of an actor's head during critical conversations. Yet the circular staging is quite effective for the combative nature of many scenes, and especially successful during an inventive, sexy, verbal enactment of the initial lovemaking between John and W.
John is quite likable, and his confusion sadly understandable, although his inability to fully commit to either lover is actually rather cruel. The final scenes are emotionally revealing and raw, as characters pour out their thwarted desires and misguided thinking.