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May 11th, 2012

Cock

Hoo boy.  Here come the sexbots.  But, really, that's the name of the play.  And there's a big old rooster on the Playbill to underscore its central (if unexpressed) conceit:  that love relationships are as much like cock fights as they are like anything else, and that, in the end, even the winning cock is nearly as bloody and damaged as the loser he's vanquished.

I went into this play knowing less than usual about what I was going to see.  Ellen said she'd like to see it, I said "Sure, why not?" and went back to finishing the latest draft of my WIP.  I think she said there were gay men involved (which didn't actually astonish me), and that it had been at the Royal Court Theater in London, where we saw The Libertine many years ago.  I didn't expect to like it; I didn't expect not to.  I don't know anything about Mike Bartlett, the playwright.  I was, in fact, a tabula rasa.

The set told me something.  The Duke has set up the whole theater as a 19th C. cock pit:  steep banks of backless benches around a really very small central circle.  Below is a green oilcloth.  Above is an octagonal flourescent light fixture of unforgiving and unvarying brightness.  On one side sits a stocky woman in an oxford-cloth shirt and a vest with a prompt book and a buzzer, which she sounds at the end of each scene, or round.

Two men enter from opposite sides of the ring.  One is dark, built, 30ish, with one of those faces that can skip from scorn to anxiety to frozen rage in a heartbeat.  The other is fairer, slighter, looks 20-something but is probably older, possessed of remarkable cheekbones, puppy eyes, and an air of slightly vague sweetness that, frighteningly, doesn't vary even when he's saying something neither vague nor sweet.  It is immediately apparent that these two have been living together for some time, that the dark one (M) is happy with the relationship, and that the fair one (John, the only named character) is sorta, kinda, well, not exactly not happy, but maybe a little restless?  Dissatisfied?  Uncomfortable?  He doesn't really know.  But whatever it is, it makes him leave M by the second buzzer--for a couple of weeks, anyway.  During which he meets, and arguably falls in love with, a young woman (W), with whom he has surprisingly glorious sex, who treats him like an adult (as M does not), who offers him a future of marriage and vine-covered cottages and children and Christmas dinners (which M most certainly does not).  Who, in turn, he leaves for M, who he still loves.  And quarrels with.  And can't stop telling about W and how much he loves her.

Just when I was starting to think M was going to kill John just to get him to shut up, he surprised me by inviting her to dinner.  And his father, so he'd have someone there on his side in case (!) things got weird.  And then things got weird.  But not in any of the ways I thought they would.

It was certainly an interesting play.  A great deal of it is about the ways people talk to each other, what they listen to and what they ignore, how they try and fail (or succeed) in manipulating each other.  M has a great line in clever-boots sarcasm, which is simultaneously hilarious and slightly cringe-worthy.  W is nice to an almost supernatural degree, with just enough no-nonsense frankness to keep her from floating off the stage on a pink, fluffy cloud.  She suffers from being slightly more of a polemical position than a real character, though Amanda Quaid works hard to give her true humanity. Similarly, M's father (F), is not altogether convincing.  He's a useful fourth in the complex dance that is the closing bout of the cock fight, but that's pretty much all he is.

M and John, on the other hand, are very real indeed.  And Jason Butler Harner and Cory Michael Smith do them proud.  I've heard fights like theirs.  I've participated in fights like theirs (not in the last 20 years, I hasten to say).  Even though the putative subject of their quarrels--as of the play--is John's sexual identity and, more fundamentally, whether homosexuality is a choice or a destiny, finally, what I was most touched by was its more generally human concerns.  What is love, and how do you know you're in it?  What is normal, and who gets to define it?  How on earth can you choose between two loved, but mutually exclusive objects?

In the end, Mike Bartlett leaves the answer to that last question pretty much up in the air.  I can see how he got to where he did--he just followed the pattern he'd set up to its strictly logical conclusion.  It was absolutely satisfying intellectually.  But it wasn't particularly satisfying emotionally.  Which was his point, and on one level just as it should be.  But the effect was finally a little itch-you-can't-quite-reachish.  And I really wish he'd given W a little more real depth and complexity.  But these are personal quibbles.  It's a fine play.  It makes you laugh and it makes you think--always a good combination.  I recommend it highly.

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