Cock, Philadelphia

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Deborah Block
Theatre Exile, Philadelphia
Oct. 17 – Nov. 17, 2013

Theatre Exile has a theme this season of plays about the search for identity.   It kicks off with Mike Bartlett’s play “Cock,” a scabrous study about questioning sexual identity, gender roles and, compellingly, about the very nature of identity as defined by sex. “Cock” has at least two literal meanings, and it is the second one that, in this drama, is also a dirty battle of wills that draws blood.

At the company’s new space, Studio X, the audience is seated around an octagon wooden stage like a cockfighting pit where the players spar, attack and strut.  Director Deborah Block builds a physical vocabulary between the actors, in pantomime, that communicates as much as their words.  Block has the couples circling each other, translating the avalanche of verbal abuse into physical theater elements that work well.

John, a “trophy” gay spouse, is having an identity crisis in his long-term relationship with M, an older, successful stock broker whose impeccable taste and loving manner belies his passive aggressive, smug and controlling ways.

The accumulation of this over time makes John (Wes Haskell) question his relationship. Initially M (John Jarboe) seems too pliable and emotionally victimized at the hands of John, who is looking to make a break in the relationship after seven years together. Bartlett goes, wisely, to deeper psychological territory, desires and power dynamics in all relationships.

John lets himself get picked up at a London tube stop by W (Mary Tuomanen) a woman who has just gone through a breakup as well and who has no problem with helping John find out if he is bisexual, after all, or even if she’s his  first attempt to find out. But, W tells John, if he is truly aroused by her, it has to be because he genuinely wants her sexually and romantically, not just to use her to get out of a gay relationship or to prove something.  Somewhere along the line, these characters are alternately very attractive and very ugly— willing to fight dirty to get their emotional needs met and sexual desires fulfilled.

W and M eventually fight each other with the gloves off over John, who doesn’t, apparently, know who he is or what he wants. Through a series of fragmented scenes, you get the feeling that he is also playing games with them and himself.

After glimpses of his life with both, John wants to bring it all to a head by telling W and M that they should meet at dinner at M’s house. But he tells W it is to break up with M, and he tells M that it is to break up with W. Bartlett keeps John so self-contradicting that you get, as a viewer, just as frustrated as the characters he’s dicking around. Not dicking around is M’s father, F (Benjamin Lovell), who was summoned for moral support (and none-too-subtle plot device).

All of the actors do believable Londoner dialects. Jarboe’s East Ender sarcasm is tour de force-y within Bartlett’s operatic emotional meltdowns. Haskell’s John, with his yearning puppy eyes and questionable sincerity, is captivating even when you want to kick him. Mary Tuomanen’s performance gives dimension to an unsympathetic, one-note role, and Lovell plays the daddy meddling to droll perfection.

Some of it gets and seems like a throwback to Albee-esque 1960s bitchiness, but it is ultimately not gratuitous, and Bartlett gets to existential realities of life in relationships, spousal and familial. The cul de sacs in the script are inventively smoothed out by Block, in pacing, invention and a very fine cast.

Lewis Whittington

Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.