theater Theatre Exile

Theater review: Cock

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Despite the ballsy title, Theatre Exile's Cock is surprisingly tame.


BI-SPURIOUS: Wes Haskell (left) as John, the confused apex of a sexuality-twisting love triangle, and John Jarboe as his longtime partner M in Theatre Exile's production of Cock.
Paola Nogueras

I doubt I need to tell you this, but Cock is not about a rooster. No, playwright Mike Bartlett's comedy-drama is the story of fraught sexual triangle. The ballsy title suggests there will not be much beating around the bush (OK, I'll stop now), but in the end, Cock is surprisingly tame.

Set in contemporary London, the focus here is young man named John, who is at the apex of this triangle. For seven years, John has been living with a male lover (he's called only “M” here). From the outset, it's clear their relationship has its tensions, but it would not occur to the audience—nor, it seems to either John or M—to question whether both men are, in fact, gay. (Bartlett's writing also paints the two in a way that reeks of stereotypes. John is the easygoing, agreeable one; M is emotional and high maintenance—in other words, what used to be called queeny).

So it's a surprise to everybody when John meets a young woman (yes, she's called W), and after a little coaching from her on the, um, ins-and-outs of heterosexual intercourse, he seems ready to consider a serious affair. More than an affair, really—soon, they (well, mostly W) are talking about having children and growing old together. 

Will John leave M and take up with W, or will his heterosexual fling prove a temporary dalliance? For most of Cock's 90 minutes (there's no intermission), this question takes center stage, first in a series of separate conversations between John and M and John and W, and later with all three as a group. (The final 15 minutes rather implausibly introduces M's father—yup, he's called F—to join in the discussion.)

Some aspects of Cock are genuinely thought-provoking. Bartlett lays out the story in an intriguing series of snapshots or fragments that leave us trying to fill in the blanks. His dialogue sometimes sounds mundane, but it has a pointed subtext. Most strikingly, in the character of John, Bartlett has a created a modern anti-hero who embodies one of the saddest truths of sexual attraction—that merely by being ambivalent, a person can end up with all the power in a relationship. We never really know how John himself feels about this. Is he knowingly manipulative, or merely hapless? Does he take sadistic pleasure in the effects of his indecision on his potential partners, or is he genuinely unaware of their feelings? The ambiguity is uncomfortable for the audience, but it's also grippingly realistic. 

Bartlett has given Cock a host of edgy trappings. There's that title, of course, as well as a fair amount of crude language. The script also calls for a staging that suggests an open fighting area, and is free of furniture or props. Sexual activity itself is mimed (the actors are fully clothed throughout), and in fact physical contact of any kind is minimal. It's possible this highly stylized conception might work on a large stage, where the distances between characters could register. Here, Theatre Exile's intimacy, which so often is an asset, proves a liability. Despite some good work of director Deborah Block and her actors (Wes Haskell as John, Mary Tuomanen as W, John Jarboe as M), the production looks cramped and awkward. There's little sense of sexual chemistry between any of the couples.

Ultimately, though, what neutralizes the play is its naïveté. Is it really a surprise to audiences today that sexual attraction is fluid and hard to define? Bartlett seems to believe this will come as a mind-blowing revelation, but I think it won't. In fact, I'm surprised Cock, which promises a level of sophistication that it never actually delivers, hasn't already been turned into a middle-of-the-road “adult” movie (Tom Hiddleston, Colin Farrell and Gwyneth Paltrow would be perfect in the leads). 

Through November 10, Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St., 215-218-4022, theatreexile.org.

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