May 21, 2014 | by Patrick Folliard
‘Cock’-and-bull story?
Ben Cole, gay news, Washington Blade

Ben Cole, left, as John, Scott Parkinson as M and Liesel Allen Yeager as W in ‘Cock’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Teddy Wolff, courtesy Studio)

‘Cock’

Through June 22

Studio Theatre

1501 14th St, NW

$39-85

Studiotheatre.org

202-332-3300

Is sexuality set in stone?

In his titillatingly titled “Cock,” British playwright Mike Bartlett explores that often asked question through protagonist John, a youngish gay man who can’t decide whether to stay with what he knows — a stale relationship with another man — or pursue the new found joys of heterosexual bliss with a woman he’s recently met.

“Cock” is funny but painfully real, too. Crisply staged by David Muse, Studio’s production is fast paced and features a terrific cast that successfully plumbs their parts for what’s likable and what isn’t. There are no props. Debra Booth’s set is simple — a circular sandbox. Overhead hang fluorescent tubes. It’s the perfect pit for a wrestling match, cockfight, or battle of words. Scenes are like boxing rounds but each ends with a buzzer rather than a ding. Hitting below the belt is allowed.

John (Ben Cole) is unhappy with his older boyfriend simply known as M (Scott Parkinson). While taking a brief respite from the relationship, John has a fling with a woman, W (Liesel Allen Yeager). After several weeks, a contrite John returns to M bearing a teddy bear and the news of his affair. M is both incredulous and enraged.

Despite going back to M, John continues to see W. She is aware that John is gay and knows of his life with M, but is undeterred. For the youngish divorcee, John is a way to stave off the loneliness that sets in on Saturday afternoons. Together they imagine romantic jaunts to Paris and future holidays surrounded by contented offspring. She’s charmed by his “halo of disorganization.” A relationship develops.

To soften the blow of his infidelity, John describes his decidedly feminine new girlfriend to M as “manly.”  The ever snarky M responds with a barrage of “tranny” jokes along with some other unsavory cracks. John retorts with annihilating blasts of truth: You’re not as good-looking as you think you are, he tells his older boyfriend. You’re lucky to have me. John informs M that the sex is better with his newfound girlfriend. Yet M remains steadfast in his attachment. Along with his excellent job and great apartment, John is a trophy that he’s reluctant to let go.

Then the script becomes a tad improbable. The trio decides to meet at M and John’s place for dinner to hash things out. M invites his supportive, widowed father (Bruce Dow) for backup. Dow does a wonderful job, but this production calls for an older actor. Unsurprisingly, the evening devolves into something less than polite. After all, M and W are fighting for the same man. Thrown by her far-from-manly looks, M makes digs at W’s career, bitchily asking why she doesn’t have a real job. (W is a teacher’s assistant. M is stockbroker. We’re told John works but what he does is never revealed.) W is less rude, but then she can afford to be. She goes into the dinner confident that she’s going to win John, the dithering prize.

Unfortunately, it’s up to the excruciatingly indecisive John to make all the decisions.

“Cock” is as much about the power dynamics in relationships as it is about sexuality. It’s about bending another’s will to meet one’s own needs. Who’s in charge — the dominant or passive partner? In an intense scene, the play’s most compelling, M struggles to regain dominance over John. Will he succeed? It’s uncertain.

With “Cock,” Studio powerfully concludes its New British Invasion Festival, a marvelous celebration that has showcased some incredibly accomplished and innovative plays by British writers under 40.

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