Magic Time! ‘Cock’ at The Studio Theatre

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If this were a theater review it would be an effusive rave. The production of Mike Bartlett’s play Cock now at The Studio Theatre is impeccable: The lighting, the sound, the direction, the casting, the acting, all are flawless. Whatever praise you’ve read about the show is likely all true. If you’ve been tempted but you’re wavering with indecision about whether to see it, just stop reading and go.

Ben Cole (John), Scott Parkinson (M), and Liesel Allen Yeager (W). Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Ben Cole (John), Scott Parkinson (M), and Liesel Allen Yeager (W). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

And be prepared to be engaged by a riveting, tense, tightly wound script about…wavering indecision.

The central character, John, came out as gay when he was a university student—no surprise, since he “fancied men…a lot a lot.” He now lives with a man, to whom he’s hugely sexually attracted and who’s much in love with John, almost desperately so. But this man (whom the script names M) has a bitchy streak a mile wide and frequently mocks John nastily. John realizes that despite the hot sex they have they’re “fundamentally different individuals”—and they split up. Then John happens to meet a woman—W—with whom he falls in love. Together John and W begin a trusting intimacy and mutually satisfying sexual relationship.

Not long after John and M get back together. But John’s relationship with W continues; they both want it and like it. She knows he’s gay, because he told her right away, and she’s okay with that. But complications ensue when M learns of John’s relationship with W. Their fever-pitched conflict drives a what’s-going-to-happen-next narrative that will keep you hanging on every word and transfixed by every gesture. Whom will John choose, M or W?

“I’ve never found women attractive,” he tells W.

“I’m not women. I’m me,” W replies—in one of countless jolts of recognition that Bartlett’s repartee-rich script delivers like high voltage to the brain.

Meanwhile bitchy boyfriend is decidedly not okay with John’s relationship with W. He accuses John, “You cheated on me…with a girl a woman a female a chick, cow, bitch”—one of the least coarse instances of the misogyny he spews throughout the play. To which John says,

“Stop it.”

There is a current running through Cock that speaks profoundly to some of the most hotly contested issues in interpersonal and social relations today, the contemporary torrent of questions about gender, identity, and sexuality, and implications thereof for ethics. I cannot recall the last time I left the theater having watched a play I found so brilliant and unnerving at the same time. Maybe because I could relate. I too have fallen in love with a particular woman even though I have always been attracted to men. So I was paying particular attention to the extraordinary emotional/relational contest that Bartlett has devised here.

Cock is loaded with substance and insights but it’s by no means a treatise. It actually plays as a scintillating comedy. The witticisms come in a flurry. The brisk action is spellbinding. The actors verbally spar under florescent lighting on the dirt floor of a minimalist circular set such as where rapt spectators might watch an exquisitely choreographed cockfight.

John’s wavering indecision between W and M propels the plot.

“I suppose I like both,” he tells M, “but that’s okay isn’t it…”

“That’s okay John yes it’s absolutely okay to like both,” says M.

“Yes. Exactly.”

“But not at the same time.”

Bartlett has constructed Cock around that either/or assumption, made it seem valid and credible, exposed its high stakes, and followed its ineluctable logic. Yet the play cleverly contains within itself a fascinating rebuttal to that assumption.

Ben Cole (John) and Scott Parkinson (M). Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Ben Cole (John) and Scott Parkinson (M). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

John, for instance, remembers that when he came out

everyone said the real me was emerging, and that I’d been repressed, and so I thought I must’ve done the right thing then, but it didn’t feel like that to me…I never got why that changed anything other than who I wanted to fuck. What did it matter? Gay straight, words from the sixties, sound so old….They’re horrible words what they do how they stop you…and I can see now I can see that it’s about who the person is. Not man or woman but What they’re like. What they do.

John openly acknowledges that W treats him better than M does; she does not belittle him; she makes him feel good about himself. Moreover,

“She’s gentle,” John tells M. “You’ve never been that.”

“Gentle. No,” M concedes.

W too has M’s number: “This isn’t good for you,” W tells John. “He makes you feel…small and stupid and it’s not about sexuality at all, in the end it’s what he does for you.”

Steadily the play heads toward the inevitable collision, the crisis when John has to decide not just whom he wants to be with but who he is. Even as the suspense thickens, the laughs don’t let up, until the very last moments, the disturbing denouement.

And you walk outside afterward gobsmacked by great theater.

Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.

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Cock plays through June 22, 2014 at The Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre-1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

LINK
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins’ review of Cock on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.