Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The premise is fairly simple. John decides it is time to take a break in his relationship with his boyfriend and when he does, he unexpectedly falls for a woman, even though he had never had those types of sexual feelings before. He must then choose which one he wants to be with. While the plot may seem a bit farfetched, playwright Mike Bartlett has crafted a 100-minute play with such depth that it is unlike anything I've seen in a long time. Simple it clearly isn't.
Bartlett's dialogue resembles a tennis match between characters as they trade barbs, critiques, compliments, and criticisms of each other. Besides the smart dialogue, what elevates the play to something out of the ordinary has to do with the way it is staged. Specifically stated by the author to be performed without a set or props, the entire action of the play takes place on a flat, circular stage with the actors constantly moving, circling each other if they are roosters in a cockfighting ring. We are watching the "fight" unfold in front of us, and what a fight it is. We are witnesses to every plea, outburst, and demand that each character undertakes, and there are many loud arguments and emotional outbreaks.
Director Damon Dering has not only staged the piece beautifully, with good use of Clare Burnet's evocative and precise lighting, but he also draws out perfect, succinct performances from his four actors. Jericho Thomas is John, the quieter member of the gay couple at the center of the play, and Dylan Kim is "M," the more vocal and controlling half. M exudes control but also a strong need to have John in his life. Kim is stellar as the condescending, needy, persuasive, unlikable and demanding man. Thomas is also doing great work here in a part that requires many quiet moments. He perfectly plays the confusion, fear, and sexual intrigue that the role of John requires and the final scene, in which what John doesn't say tells us exactly what he is thinking, is stunningly acted in its simplicity.
While it is easy to see why these two should take a break in their relationship, Bartlett has written such smart dialogue for both of them, and the other two characters as well, that one can see how connected the men are but also why they are also wrong for each other. Bartlett doesn't need to add extraneous material in order for us to completely understand exactly what is going on between these two and shy they should be together, as well as why they shouldn't. And, while the play might sound intense, it also contains a considerable amount of humor to balance the more passionate situations. Kim specifically plays these humorous moments well, delivering his lines with a requisite bitchiness.
Ryan L. Jenkins is "W," the woman John meets and falls in love with. Jenkins is perfect in the part, with the right balance, like Kim, of control and need, while adding a dose of charm to W that makes us understand why John is drawn to her. The interesting irony is that the only difference between M and W is their sex, as they are both extremely controlling people who are really only nice to John on the surface. Jenkins is quite effective in showing how W's true colors come out in the climatic dinner scene, and she and Kim both portray their characters' insecurities just as well.
The time when the three come together is when the real fighting begins, as both M and W make their moves to sway John to pick them as the victor in the ultimate "cock fight." And, while John seems like a nice, young and attractive guy and we can easily see why both M and W desire him, he also is a very indecisive person and obviously sexually confused. So all three have their pros and cons, just like real people, but are still likable enough to see why John is drawn to them and vice versa. Yet, at the same time, they are all somewhat unlikable as well.
The fourth character in the play is "F," M's father. Douglas Loynd plays the part with a huge amount of charm and an outpouring of love toward his son. F is fighting for his son's relationship, something any gay kid would love to have his father do for him.
Bartlett has crafted a very intriguing character in John, one who can't quite figure out how he fits in the various labels that the modern world puts on people, as "gay" and "bi" and even "straight" don't seem to help him find his way. It is an interesting point of view and shows how society rewards or acknowledges people for certain things like coming out or having a family, as well as how sometimes what might seem like the easy way may not be that easy at allthat is, living a straight lifestyle. As a gay man I always thought that a bi man who lived a straight life was really gay but just couldn't admit it, and I never imagined that someone like John, who starts out living a gay life but then finds himself drawn toward women, really existed. But after seeing Cock Off-Broadway in 2012 and now seeing it again, I find myself having a different understanding for people who say they are bi as well as for those who feel they don't quite fit in. Like I said before, this play will most likely open your eyes to many things.
There are a couple of small issues I have with the play and one specifically with this production. For the majority of the play, between each scene we hear a simple bell tone or other sound effect as if to indicate the end of one round and the beginning of another, just like you'd hear at a fight. The only thing missing is a spit bucket for each character and a towel to wipe off the sweat. However, as creative as this sound effect is and despite its correlation to an actual fight, the bell sounds virtually disappear toward the last half of the play as the scenes get longer. It would seem more appropriate if the bell kept ringing as the stakes in this fight get higher and the outcome keeps switching, especially since during those last longer scenes there are natural breaks when characters move from one "room" in an apartment to another, so the bell sound could still easily work as a scene break. Also, the use of "M," "W," and "F" as character names is somewhat pretentious. I'm assuming Bartlett means "man," "woman," and "father," but why not just give them names like he did for John? For this production, unlike in the Off Broadway production, Dering has added an intermission, which breaks the flow of the piece and takes us slightly out of the minds of the characters. But these issues are small quibbles when compared to the sheer brilliance of the piece and how Dering's direction and his cast effectively bring it to life.
Cock is one of the most original, intelligent, and thought-provoking plays of the past ten years. The dialogue and the direction are emotional and raw without the trappings of sets and costumes. Nearly Naked Theatre's Arizona premiere production is a well acted and directed emotional knockout.
Cock runs through January 30th, 2016, with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at nearlynakedtheatre.org
Director: Damon Dering