'Cock'

With the precious exception of literati like Oscar Wilde and his beloved Bosie, quarreling lovers are never as articulate and entertaining as they are in "Cock," Mike Bartlett's provocatively titled play about a gay couple who split up when one of them falls for a woman.

With the precious exception of literati like Oscar Wilde and his beloved Bosie, quarreling lovers are never as articulate and entertaining as they are in “Cock,” Mike Bartlett’s provocatively titled play about a gay couple who split up when one of them falls for a woman. Wittily staged in a stylized cock-fighting ring, the contest for the narcissistic love object is a battle royal of wit and persuasion that only breaks down once it becomes obvious (if not to the loveblinded rivals) that this shallow boy isn’t worth all the angst.

Helmer James Macdonald, who directed the original Olivier-winning production at the Royal Court, makes shrewd use of Miriam Buether’s compact arena set, which has the audience peering down from wooden bleachers on scenes tightly confined to a bare fighting ring. The action is mostly abstract, with characters doing all sorts of interesting things to one another without removing their clothes or even touching.

While the audience must exercise its collective imagination to visualize what’s happening in these intimate scenes, Bartlett’s sharp images and cutting lines of dialogue are helpful clues to the convoluted way these characters think. When one lover brings the other an inappropriate gift (of teddy bears), this “random gesture full of humor and irony, intended to provoke mutual feelings of good will and find the giver endearing” is ripped apart and analyzed for all its sub-contextual meanings.

Bartlett’s hyper-literate and rather arch language can be a mouthful. But no one in this strong cast actually strangles on them. In fact, these thesps seem to relish the hard bits.

Jason Butler Harner (“Alcatraz”) gives the strongest — and showiest — perf as “M,” the unnamed man who is rather callously thrown over by his younger lover and fights like hell to get him back. Bartlett throws M some wonderfully bitchy lines, but Harner puts his own body language behind them.

With his skeletal frame and boyishly goofy demeanor, Cory Michael Smith, playing conflicted protag John, doesn’t look like an ideal object of romantic obsession. But the thesp uses these limitations to create an endearing persona attractive to both male and female alpha types. More critically, Smith handles that tricky language really well.

As the unnamed female “F,” Amanda Quaid (the Broadway “Equus”) holds her own and then some in those pitched battles over John, who keeps waffling between his two lovers. But why, pray tell, must such a pretty girl be made to wear such an ugly dress?

The play only breaks down during its final scene, an absurdist dinner party at which John and his lady friend are invited by John’s forsaken partner to dine with him and, of all unlikely people, his supportive father (Cotter Smith). At this, the play’s main event, the rival lovers repeat the same circular arguments they’ve been making all along, only with more desperation, while John becomes more and more withdrawn.

As their pain becomes more palpable, M and F become more sympathetic. But instead of being moved by the suffering of his lovers, and perhaps feeling some guilt for being the cause of it, the narcissistic John seems untouched by anything but his own feelings, making him a bit of a monster. Something tells us that this wasn’t exactly what the playwright had in mind.

Cock

The Duke on 42nd Street; 199 seats; $79.50 top

Production

A presentation by Stuart Thompson, Jean Doumanian, Royal Court Theater, William Berlind, Scott Delman, Dena Hammerstein, Jon B. Platt, Scott Rudin, Ted Snowdon, True Love Productions, in association with Kevin Emrick and Patrick Daly, of an English Stage Company production at the Royal Court Theater in London, of a play in one act by Mike Bartlett. Directed by James Macdonald.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Miriam Buether; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Darron L. West; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson. Opened May 17, 2012. Reviewed May 16. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

John - Cory Michael Smith
M - Jason Butler Harner
W - Amanda Quaid
F - Cotter Smith

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