The comedic drama Cock won an Olivier Award in London in 2010, selling out at an intimate upstairs Royal Court Theatre venue before it opened. It was presented off-Broadway in 2012, garnering critical acclaim, and a five-month run. Despite its provocative title, it is not salacious, but is a sharply-etched depiction of human needs, presented with engaging humor, and without judging these needs.
The familiar romantic triangle, a staple of theater, takes on the aura of originality, as the man torn between two lovers here is asked to choose between a man and a woman; I underline "asked to choose" as that is the dynamic of this work. John (Bobby Haworth) has been comfortably ensconced in a homosexual relationship with "M" (Dain Geist) -- unnamed to suggest universality - in M's posh residence. John meets "W" (Haley Hussey), also unnamed, who persuades him to have sex with her, beginning an affair.
The performances are poised, astute, dead-pan hilarious, and so true to human nature that they rise to the level of brilliance, echoing the writing of Bartlett. The 90-minute play is one long, melodic riff, as M and W insist that John tell them who he is, while John says that he is trying to find out.
M and W have long known who they are, and one theme of this deceptively simple yet complex play is that M and W are attracted to John because he is drawn in pencil - each hopes to ink him in. John is passive, anxious to respond to their insistent needs, but unable to choose, as he doesn't know. A mantra of Manhattan's East Village for decades has been that love is about the person, not the gender, and John is living this insight, while his pursuers are defying it. The result is extended bear-baiting, with John the bear.
Haworth creates a memorable portrait of a naïf, a man who is not clever but is honest, and is struggling to acquire knowledge, making him part "noble savage" and part torn adolescent. He has been to university, but in self-awareness seems unformed - ah, but that is the trap - perhaps he is the modern man, formed perfectly but confused because society has not caught up. This is the third time I've seen Haworth, previously in Foxfinder and Rome,and in each he has given a striking interpretation. His capacity to communicate honest bewilderment, sensitivity, desperate needs, vulnerability and yet to be a powerful magnet requires acting of a high order, and Haworth more than rises to the challenge.
M is one of society's manipulators - his love and need for John is genuine, but selfish. Geist provides high energy and a spirited, powerful and convincing interpretation, though, as the script requires, largely humorless. Like society, he has the certitude of authority.
Hussey has the good looks to indicate clearly why John might well be attracted to her, and she adds a straightforward manner and an articulate poise that is equally appealing. Bartlett has also given her a sense of humor and a dry wit, and Hussey is remarkable in a role that requires her to face down not only M, but M's father (Steve Bullitt) as well. You've probably guessed that he too is unnamed, except as "F".
The play is a series of pas de deux, then pas de trois when W enters, then pas de quatre at the end as F comes to a dinner party "confrontation", as the bear-baiting intensifies. Bullitt is excellent as F, hostile to the "other woman" who threatens to destroy his son's relationship, as W warns him to stop looking at her breasts.
The play is the funniest I've seen this year, despite its finely tuned psychological nuances - or perhaps because of them. The situation is amusing, and the dialogue wonderfully hilarious because it rings with truth. Bartlett says he wrote it in a week, and I chalk one up for creative inspiration instead of work-shopping a play to death.
The director is Mark Adams, who has found the rhythm of comedy and the power in reactions. The play is some ways is Pinteresque, where a pause can speak volumes, and Adams uses this well. The body language of the actors is rich, and hilarious, and F's silent inability to keep his eyes from straying to M's breasts had me almost on the floor with laughter. Here is a director to be reckoned with, and to be grateful for.
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There is no set, as the playwright wants, and the lights are left on in the audience, again at the playwright's wish, though this latter decision is flawed, as is the over-used device of not naming characters. A bell rings, to indicate the end of a scene or the passage of time, or the start of a new round of combat, as in a prize fight. There is no intermission, appropriately, as the needs of humanity are relentless.
A truly brilliant play meets a superb cast and skilled direction to create theatrical magic. Seldom has a play been more thought-provoking, or provided more rich insights, as its character-driven humor reaps peals of laughter. Don't miss it.
Cock continues through May 11, from Theater laB and Obsidian Art Space at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. For information or ticketing, call 713-868-7516 or contact www.theaterlabhouston.com.