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Stage Review

Cock (2012)

COCK Jason Butler Harner, Amanda Quaid, and Cory Michael Smith
Image credit: Joan Marcus
COCK Jason Butler Harner, Amanda Quaid, and Cory Michael Smith
EW's GRADE
B+

Details Opening Date: May 17, 2012; Lead Performances: Jason Butler Harner and Cotter Smith; Director: James MacDonald; Genre: Comedy

The title, Cock, is by far the worst part of this new Off Broadway import at The Duke on 42nd Street, which sets a hostile love triangle in a cramped stadium of back-straining seats meant to resemble a cockfighting arena. (''Get it?'' the Playbill, with its crude chicken illustration, seems to snicker. ''Because the word also means...? And they're fighting over...?'' Yes, we get it.)

Push past the lazy double entendre, though, and you'll be rewarded with a lean and sharp piece of theater. John (Cory Michael Smith), a smart gay twentysomething, is hopelessly conflicted over two lovers: his snarky and adoring boyfriend (Jason Butler Harner) and the equally snarky and adoring woman he falls for after a chance meeting on the streets of London (Amanda Quaid). The play spends half an hour or so introducing its characters in vignettes, and then devotes the rest of its trim 90 minutes to John's agonizing choice, building to a suspenseful battle royale of a dinner party in which even John's boyfriend's father (Cotter Smith) demands that John pick one lover, male or female, once and for all.

In the Playbill's credits, John's boyfriend is identified simply as ''M,'' his female lover as ''W,'' and the father as ''F.'' Mike Bartlett's script goes to gymnastic lengths to avoid giving their names, and their anonymity, their anybody-ness, becomes central to the play. Likewise, director James Macdonald makes a show of having no props or decor in his tiny theater. Objects aren't even mimed: When dinner is served, the actors stand 15 feet apart with their hands at their sides, commenting on how delicious the beef is. Physical interaction becomes telegraphic as well. To signify lovemaking, two actors shuffle in a circle, keeping their distance even as they react to each other’s imaginary touch.

It's all a bit coy and gimmicky, but the anti-staging works because of the cast members, who are both in on the joke and totally invested in its delivery. Thanks to them, the play keeps a Spartan focus on its emotional arc, veering from comedy to heartbroken bitterness and back, sometimes within the span of a minute. They handle Bartlett's script confidently and deliver his lines — some startlingly smart — with playful timing. ''Some people might think you were scrawny,'' the woman tells John, eyeing him slowly. ''But I think you're like a picture drawn with a pencil... You haven't been colored in.''

Ultimately, the play's biggest limitation isn't its 15-foot stage or its lack of props. It's John, who groans about theories of sexuality like a horned-up grad student while his two lovers throw themselves at his feet. The action drags every time he launches into another Solomonic speech about his capital-D Decision and its grave, life-altering consequences, and the audience's sympathy is stretched dangerously thin. In a real cockfight, his punishment at this point might be a merciful death by pecking. Instead, it's only the puzzled clucks of theatergoers who leave the play with plenty to think about but not nearly as much to feel. B+

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Originally posted May 18, 2012