Review: ‘Cock’ at The Duke on 42nd Street (NYC)

Cock-mike-bartlett-productionA play with the provocative title Cock is going to raise eyebrows (especially when the marquee outside the Duke on 42nd Street spells it out).  The provided plot description makes it even more appealing: “When John and his boyfriend take a break, the last thing he expects is to suddenly meet the woman of his dreams. Now he has a big choice to make.”

Based on that description, it would seem like John (Cory Michael Smith) would be the central focus of the play’s story, and in some regards he is.  But once the set-up behind John’s unqiue predicament is established, boyfriend M (Jason Butler Harner), and girlfriend W (Amanda Quaid) take the lead by talking to and about John rather than with him, he sits or lies down in total frustration at not knowing what he truly wants.  It makes it even more difficult when M’s father, F (Cotter Smith) arrives and begins to advise John from his perspective as both a concerned father and a supporter of gay rights.  That ultimatum — that John has to choose to be with a man or a woman — actually flies in the face of the whole idea of F’s insistence that it is okay for him to be whoever he is, since John doesn’t want to make a choice but finds himself forced to choose between the one(s) he loves on criteria that isn’t as simple as whom he loves more. 

Though none of the actors are English, director James MacDonald — who also staged the 2009 London premiere — has kept the play set in England with all of the characters adopting accents.  It’s the right choice — the language of the play is more rhythmic with the accents.  This is no more evident than when Smith appears in the final half hour of the play and delivers his lines with a kind-of snippy old-school English wit that an American accent couldn’t pull off even if it belonged to Mark Twain.  As such the play itself is appropriately very funny since the material would naturally lend itself to be based on the absurdity of the situation.  

Because there are no props or scenery to speak of, the play relies on clever staging.  When John and W have their first sexual encounter, it is simulated by the top actors facing each other and walking in a circle that grows increasingly tighter.  It’s humorous to hear the actors speak (well, moan) as if they’re sexually exploring each other while they’re doing this, and it ties in well when later on in the play when W says to John about their curious circumstances “we’re just going around in circles.”  It’s a great bit of choreography in the production.

The role of the girl, however, has been on my mind since I’ve seen the play.  Though Quaid is a wonderful actress, the character only seems to exist because she has to exist.  In other words, Quaid is playing a placeholder, not a character — hence why she is only identified as W.  The plot requires a woman, and Quaid obviously can play that role, but John’s relationship with her is indicated to be so short that it’s surprising that they’ve become so intensely involved.  Not only is she willing to jump into bed with him so quickly, but I also wondered why she didn’t seem to mind that he has a lengthy history of playing for the other team.  That made me very curious about the character’s emotional state and personality, but the play doesn’t focus much on her.  It’s unfortunate when a compelling character isn’t utilized to its full potential, particularly for the actor, as Quaid shows herself capable of giving the role more depth if she had the opportunity to do so.  While I understand W is meant to generically represent a jilted woman as much as M is meant to represent a jilted gay man, M is given many more opportunities to display emotional depth, especially in his opening flirtatious scenes with John.  As a result, Butler shines more in his role and Quaid is regulated to a lesser presence than she can bring.  As talented of a writer as playwright Mike Bartlett is, I feel her character is a missed opportunity.

Regardless, the acting in this play is the whole reason to see it, and seeing it performed in the round with no staging distractions keeps the audience’s focus on the emotional potency of the performances.  While Cock isn’t nearly as provocative as the title suggests, it does bring up some thought-provoking questions about bisexuality and the acceptance of it by those who might otherwise call themselves open-minded.  Oh, and it does it all with wicked grin on its face.

(By the way, while the material of the play might be uncomfortable for some, it is none more than the venue’s seating, which is a 200-seat wooden bleacher surrounding the round staging area.  Be sure to buy a ticket for the last row so you can lean your back against the back bleacher wall — in all the other rows your spine is on its own.  I know that sounds like nitpicking, but trust me, it isn’t).

Cock is at the Duke on 42nd Street.  For ticket info, visit the play’s website.

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