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Photograph: Michael Brosilow
Jake Szczepaniak and Christopher Sheard in Cock at Profiles Theatre
Photograph: Michael Brosilow
Christopher Sheard and Eleni Pappageorge in Cock at Profiles Theatre
Photograph: Michael Brosilow
Eleni Pappageorge, Christopher Sheard, Jake Szczepaniak and Larry Neumann Jr. in Cock at Profiles Theatre
Photograph: Michael Brosilow
Christopher Sheard and Eleni Pappageorge in Cock at Profiles Theatre
Photograph: Michael Brosilow
Christopher Sheard and Eleni Pappageorge in Cock at Profiles Theatre
Photograph: Michael Brosilow
Christopher Sheard and Jake Szczepaniak in Cock at Profiles Theatre

Profiles Theatre. By Mike Bartlett. Directed by Darrell W. Cox. With Christopher Sheard, Jake Szczepaniak, Eleni Pappageorge, Larry Neumann Jr. 1hr 20mins; no intermission.

Theater review by Kris Vire

When John (Christopher Sheard) and his longtime boyfriend, M (Jake Szczepaniak), take a break, he's surprised to find himself finding a sexual connection with a woman, W (Eleni Pappageorge). So what's he to do when he wants to get back together with M, but keep his new girlfriend, too?

Brit playwright Mike Bartlett gave his funny, feisty 2009 work about an unconventional love triangle a title so cheekily suggestive that my colleagues at family newspapers are likely to awkwardly maneuver around referring to it by name, as The New York Times did during the show’s 2012 Off Broadway run. Profiles Theatre’s publicist, too, carefully avoided using the title in the subject line of e-mails to the press, presumably to avoid getting caught up in any adult content filters.

Yet while Cock does invoke the sexual connotation of John’s sexuality crisis, it has more meanings than that: It has the suggestion of the benign British term “cock-up,” as in John’s made a real cock-up of the situation. And it also calls to mind cock-fighting, which is something of a metaphor for Bartlett—relationships as blood sport.

Scenic designer Katie-Bell Springmann installs a massively impressive gladiatorial arena in Profiles’ Main Stage theater, where we watch the combatants spar in the enclosed center ring. Unlike in the London and New York productions, there is some baring of flesh. Director Darrell W. Cox smartly aligns the characters’ stripping away articles of clothing with their emotional nakedness in the play’s first two long sequences, which track John’s dilemma first with M, then with W.

The piece’s physicality is fascinating, as the actors prowl the ring, sizing each other up like warriors and retreating to their corners as needed; no props are employed to get in the way, though the amount of space between figures is often charged—we see John and W’s first sexual encounter enacted as the actors remain several feet apart and mostly still, and yet it’s an incredibly sensual moment.

All four actors are superb. (Larry Neumann Jr. shows up as M’s aggressively supportive father, F, in the final sequence, when the entire group gathers for a dramatically convenient but terribly unlikely dinner party.) M’s brittle bitchiness, pointedly played by Szczepaniak, masks deep insecurity and hurt over his betrayal by John; Pappageorge succeeds at the difficult task of making W’s dogged pursuit of a gay man seem natural.

But is John even gay? Why does the world insist he choose? Those are perhaps the central questions, and newcomer Sheard is terrific, anchoring the piece in John’s crippling blend of self-absorption and self-doubt. “Everyone else seems to have a personality, a character,” he mopes, but he’s suddenly struck by the horrifying sense he has no identity of his own. Though it’s his insufferable indecision that’s his undoing, Sheard makes us sympathetic to John’s predicament. His confident performance of unconfidence helps gives Cock its powerful thrust.