Bisexuality is the no-man’s-land of erotic identity: a shifting zone that can inspire distrust or even mockery from partisans in the homo or hetero camps. Often it’s considered a dodge by the self-deluded and semicloseted, or else it’s sanctioned by straight men to vicariously enjoy lesbian spectacles. Mike Bartlett’s Cock isn’t really about the bi lifestyle. Although John (Cory Michael Smith) begins an affair with W (Amanda Quaid) while briefly separated from M (Jason Butler Harner), the real theme is sexual power. John loves being loved, even if it drives his paramours into violent agonies.
This sharp, blisteringly funny but also wrenching drama premiered three years ago at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and the Off Broadway version smartly retains the original design and director. Miriam Buether’s stylized arena—a ministadium of curved benches around a bright green floor—suggests a low-rent pit for metaphorical cockfights. And the excellent James Macdonald is firmly attuned to Bartlett’s lean, stinging text, which pings between bursts of eloquent bitchiness and bleeding excavations of hurt and desire. (The coupling between John and W is done fully clothed, standing and with simple movements, but it’s sensationally graphic and tender.)
Best of all, the outstanding American actors slip neatly into their British accents and affects. Harner delights as the outraged M, spewing insults and venting spleen. Quaid’s lithe build belies a killer’s instinct (watch as she shifts her weight from foot to foot, sizing up her opponents). And Smith succeeds in making an utter, manipulative narcissist seem the victim, and yet genuinely engaged with those around him. Putting in a late appearance as M’s refreshingly open-minded father, Cotter Smith adds dry humor to a wickedly awkward dinner party.
In its concentrated mix of physical abstraction and emotional realism, Cock makes for a bracing and powerful tour around pretty elemental material: trust, desire, the slippery self. Add to that plenty of laughs and a few sharp twists. At the risk of seeming fatuous, I’d call it the perfect date show: Bring him and her.—David Cote
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