By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Cock, by Mike Bartlett, is occasionally--for both thematic and practical reasons--called The Cockfight Play. In a bisexual love triangle with one spectacularly indecisive young man at its apex, his lovers battling for his affections, there’s bound to be some bloodletting. But Theatre Exile’s funny, sensitive production, directed by Deborah Block, and staged in the round on a low, hexagonal wooden platform, feels more like a slow, sad game of Chinese checkers. This is not an insult.
Sure, people fall in and out of love ferociously, viciously, but they also do it in fits and starts, a leap closer, a few hops back. As Wes Haskell’s boyish, blue-eyed John and John Jarboe’s v-necked, buttoned-down broker M discover after seven years together, it’s tough enough one on one, with a definitive sexual orientation. When John meets Mary Tuomanen’s no-nonsense W, he shocks himself by falling in love, and during an ill-advised dinner meeting between the trio and M’s father, F (Benjamin Lovell), it becomes clear to them all that John, a serial liar who refuses commit to either partner, is so desirable precisely because his entire identity has been crafted to reflect other people’s desires. Of course, this is hardly a deterrent, though it is a detriment to each in his or her own way.
Bartlett’s script eschews set, props, even touch, for the most part. However, when the actors circle one another like predatory animals, Tuomanen reacts to the suggestion of sexual contact with a full-body quiver, or Jarboe pantomimes disrobing by shifting his shoulders and softening his eyes into a vulnerable entreaty, well, what else do you really need? Perhaps Block’s pacing highlights a bit of the script’s repetitiveness, but it also allows Jarboe and Tuomanen in particular (partners in both the Bearded Ladies and Applied Mechanics theater troupes) plenty of time to dig their talons into one another and their characters, all for our delight.
In the clumsier hands of, say Neil LaBute or David Mamet, whose relationship dramas glance alongside Bartlett’s, Cock might merely be a work about sexual identity. Instead, Bartlett asks about identity itself; who we love is less important than how we love, and the way we love reveals who we are.
Playing at: Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St., Philadelphia. Through Sun., Nov. 17. Tickets: $10 to $40. Information: 215-218-4022 or www.TheatreExile.org