Mike Bartlett’s play is titled Cock, and, yes — to get the snickers out of the way up front — the title does refer to the male organ, and it feels pretty odd to call the Edge Theater Company’s box office for two tickets or tell your friends you’re off to see Cock. It’s also true that the set looks like an arena for cockfighting, or perhaps dog-fighting, and in many ways the action is a prolonged battle. The central character, John, breaks up with M, his older, long-term partner, and to his surprise finds himself profoundly attracted to W, a charming woman he sees frequently on the way to work. The first act is mostly a series of brief, two-person witticism-filled scenes, the contemporary British slang and English accents making those witticisms sound even wittier — though serious feelings also get explored. The second act culminates in a tense and long, drawn-out confrontation, pulsing with real grief and rage and complicated by the arrival of F, M’s father.
The action is stylized. There’s no furniture in the large, gray oblong arena with raised walls, and no props are used. Nothing is mimed, either, and for a long time there’s no touching of any kind. The protagonists simply sit, stand, walk slowly toward or past each other. When the first physical contact occurs, late in the play, it’s in every sense a shocker.
There’s a lot of discussion about just what it means to be gay, whether John is in fact bisexual and what bisexuality signifies, the fidelity John owes to M, and his fascination with the physical differences between his two lovers. John is drawn toward the comfort and familiarity of life with M, but at the same time longs for the house and children he could share with W. The sex scenes are indicated rather than graphic, but they’re genuinely sensual and affecting, as John and M quietly reassert their love for each other and, later, when John discovers, while making love to W, the glorious terrain of her woman’s body. M’s father, who seems a bit of a bully, admits it took him a while to accept his son’s homosexuality, but now he has his own thoughts about fidelity and is deeply committed to M’s happiness.
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One problem with the play is John’s odd passivity. Like Hamlet, he dithers endlessly. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, no matter whom he’s being courted by, it seems he “would prefer not to.” There’s a suggestion that M is domineering and his condescension has sapped John’s confidence over the years, and clearly he and his father represent a formidable united front. In light of John’s constant misery and hesitation, however, it’s sometimes hard to see why M and W, who’s almost too sweet and loving to be believable, are fighting for his love tooth and nail (there’s that arena again).
You can understand why John’s discovery of his bisexuality — if that’s what it is — would rock his sense of self, and you empathize with his plea that it’s not about gay or straight, man or woman, but “who the person is.” But he seems to have been plagued by deep issues of identity all along. By his own description, he’s been plastic and accommodating, a kind of invisible man who simply has never known who he is — which explains why his real yearning for W may be overwhelmed by his habitual subservience to M.
Cock sometimes seems to want to say something deeper and more important than it actually manages to. Strip away the brutal-looking set and stylized-performance approach, though, and what you get is a fairly conventional love triangle. Still, there are several good reasons to see this regional premiere: The script is interesting, eloquent and entertaining, and it periodically touches a nerve. The production is well directed by Robert Kramer, and he’s assembled some of Denver’s best actors. Michael Bouchard is an achingly sincere John, and in a nuanced performance, Brian Landis Folkins reveals both M’s pain and his arrogance. Chris Kendall, who has the best English accent on the stage, does excellent work as M’s enigmatic and unyielding father. And Rachel Bouchard’s W is so radiant, beautiful, open and vulnerable that you want to smack John for causing her even a second’s distress.
Cock, presented by the Edge Theater Company through April 5, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.