'Cock'

Part of the excitement of Mike Bartlett's riveting new play is that it delivers on every one of the "cock" connotations.

Terse, bold, blunt, emblematic of masculinity and, above all, sex, the word “cock” is also a British slang abbreviation for “cock and bull story,” as in a succession of lies. Part of the excitement of Mike Bartlett’s riveting new play is that it delivers on every one of those connotations. The only thing not conveyed by the title is that the writing is matched by James Macdonald’s brilliantly acted, arrestingly funny production.

If the title is provocative, the play’s (in)action sits safely within the traditional territory of a love triangle. John (Ben Whishaw) is in a long-standing relationship with M (Andrew Scott) but realizes he wants out. A week later he’s back for forgiveness, solace, oh, and: “I think I’m in love and I want help because she’s mad.”

It’s a surprise to all parties. John tells W, the woman in question (Katherine Parkinson), that he’s never really looked at women. “I find them a bit like water… when you want beer.”

Whatever the flavor, John drinks and the play follows his ensuing saga of sex, lies and vacillations up to a deliciously ghastly dinner for all parties at which John promises to make a choice. However, the surprisingly simple plot, which includes the arrival of M’s father F (Paul Jesson), is barely the half of it. Bartlett’s manner counts easily as much as his subject matter.

John’s concurrent relationships and, crucially, the edited versions he tells each party, are presented with only the minimum of explanation. With immediate jump-cuts between scenes, the audience is constantly in the engrossing position of playing catch-up.

More precisely, within each scene, all extraneous, naturalistic setups have been removed. Dialogue is cut to the quick with surgical precision down to the characters’ most vivid and basic thoughts and needs. The effect — frank and often hilarious — is like watching “Private Lives” on fast-forward, albeit it with saltier language.

Macdonald’s production does away with all props and never stoops to mime. This pumps up the intensity of every exchange as the actors circle each other on Miriam Buether’s set, which reconfigures the auditorium into a — all puns evidently intended — cockpit. These lovers are presented not just as partners, they’re sparring partners held, like the audience, beneath Peter Mumford’s unchanging bright light.

Tender or tortured, every scene is a bout in which punches are verbal, not physical. Yet the stripped-down physical language is amazingly expressive. John’s nervous but increasingly excited first heterosexual experience is genuinely erotic, a feat of directorial bravura considering not a stitch of clothing is removed, neither of them touches the other, and all they do is lock eyes, sway and, well, act.

It’s tangibly evident that every thought and beat in the text has been mined. We know when John is saving his skin by lying not only because we’ve seen him say something else earlier, but because everyone’s hidden thought processes are made so hilariously legible.

Whishaw’s typically febrile approach works particularly well. Hangdog and hopeful, rubbing his face as if trying to discover the man beneath his own skin, he’s a walking indecision. He’s matched by a note-perfect Parkinson, whose strong suit is plaintive, a quality her character quietly uses to wield power. And bluff Jesson nicely captures the protective father caught on the paradox of trying to keep his son’s male lover off the straight and narrow.

Yet it’s Scott as the maddened boyfriend on the brink of being left who unwittingly dominates.

Scott, who played twin brothers for Macdonald in the Royal Court premiere of Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City,” makes wholly unexpected choices with line readings. He brings high-pitched astonishment to a bald statement of fact, ringing sincerity to a line begging to be drenched in irony. But the result feels wholly truthful and unactorly. That, combined with his rare ability to embody contradictory states, makes M’s defiance and vulnerability heartbreaking.

Bartlett’s even-handed approach threatens to suggest that gay vs. straight sexuality is an equal battle. But what looks like a struggle between say, the lure of the “normal” life versus the iconoclasm of gay relationships turns, far more interestingly, into a matter of personality, not politics.

“Cock” is clearly indebted to later work by Caryl Churchill, especially “A Number,” which did for cloning what Bartlett does here for bisexuality. But at the age of 28, he’s more than allowed to show his influences. His previous plays heralded real talent. Bartlett now proves that his time has, well, come.

Cock

Royal Court Upstairs, London; 90 seats; £15 $25 top

Production

A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in one act by Mike Bartlett. Directed by James Macdonald.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Miriam Buether; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, David McSeveney; production stage manager, Tariq Rifaat. Opened, reviewed Nov. 18, 2009. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

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