A Review of Cock

dreamwellckby Phil Beck

Iowa City – Does our current understanding of human sexuality’s complexity render sexual orientation a meaningless abstraction? Are “gay” and “straight” outmoded terms? These provocative thoughts lie at the heart of Cock, by British playwright Mike Bartlett, which opened Friday at Public Space One. It’s the final production in Dreamwell Theatre’s season, “Interrogation: Uncovering the Buried Self,” and the group couldn’t have picked a better play to represent that theme. Or mounted a stronger production. Cock is their best show of the past year.

It depicts the dilemma of the appropriately named John (Per Wiger), a young man embroiled in a contentious relationship with a domineering older man (Bryant Duffy). Chafing under his boyfriend’s treatment, John breaks with him to try life on his own. He returns a few weeks later with some startling news—he’s fallen in love with a woman (Jessica Wilson). Nevertheless, he wants to resume the relationship with his former lover (known only as M). At least, he thinks he does—he’s actually not yet sure. Confused and hurting, John asks his incredulous boyfriend to help him decide between his two lovers. At first outraged and insulted, M eventually agrees, provided he meet the woman, W.

That will occur in Act 2, during one of the most emotionally charged dinner parties you’ll ever witness. But first, the play winds back to clock to introduce us to W and recount the course of her love affair with John. From this somewhat gimmicky set-up, Bartlett wrings a powerful drama laced with biting humor that upends many of our notions about sexual identity, intimacy, and even romance. Bristling with tension and dark wit, Cock is a play devoted to talk, brilliant and barbed. The format might at first resemble something Noel Coward could have written, but the dialogue drips from Edward Albee’s pen. The second act is like a compressed version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The characters strip each other, and are in turn stripped naked of all defenses and presumptions as each strives to discover the truth within her or himself and speak it frankly to the others. Bartlett’s subject is sex and so his incisive dialogue is frequently explicit and profane. This play is not for the shy. Look no further than the provocative title for an indication of what lies in store.

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The cast of four provides the best ensemble acting I’ve seen all year. As the emotionally adrift John, Per Wiger exudes boyish charm and vulnerability while hinting at the tougher adult sensibility growing within. His is a coming-of-age story and Wiger makes us see John’s growing pains, as well as his difficulty deciding his own fate, by restlessly circumnavigating the stage, his character literally wandering in circles. Jessica Wilson, costumed in a bright red dress to project her startling presence in these two men’s lives, informs W’s “intruder” status with dignity and grace, as well as a sly undercurrent of irony. W keeps her cool and her civility even when subjected to M’s scorching verbal assaults, but Wilson’s expressive face lets us see every emotion, seemingly every thought, that boils beneath W’s outward calm. She’s in complete control every moment she’s onstage. As M’s father, a surprise and unwelcome guest at the explosive dinner party, Rip Russell gives a pitch-perfect performance as a bluff but well-intentioned man searching vainly for simple answers to questions too complex for him to comprehend. But ultimately, the night belongs to Duffy, who is simply extraordinary. Acerbic, pitiable, churlish, and terribly wounded by turns, Duffy masters an incredibly broad range of emotions, making each one honest, infusing each word of dialogue with a sense of truth. His performance needs to be seen by more people in a bigger venue.

Cock is staged without a stick of scenery or a single prop. With less assured actors, the bareness of the setting might seem artificial, but in this beautifully performed production transparency intensifies the internal quality of the drama. We have only the actors to look at, nothing to distract us from the energy they create speaking, looking at each other, moving about the stage. And they seem to be moving constantly, circling each other like fighters looking for an opening. A friend who accompanied me compared them to gladiators in the ring. The program cover has a picture of two roosters about to attack each other, evoking the viciousness of cockfights. Choose your own metaphor—the characters are combatants, wielding words like weapons.

Much credit goes to director Matthew Brewbaker for keeping the level of intensity high without causing exhaustion. He allows the characters to back away and find shelter when they, and the audience, need a break. Wiger often retreats to the fringes, standing half in light and half in shadow as if to symbolize John’s duality. Wilson stands very, very still between Wiger and Duffy, momentarily safe in the eye of the hurricane, her eyes darting back and forth as she calculates which way her fortunes are blowing. Duffy exhibits M’s theatrical personality by milking his frequent dramatic exits, as if announcing Intermission each time he leaves the stage.

The otherwise expert staging failed in only one instance. The audience is arranged on opposite sides of the stage, facing each other. When John and W have sex for the first time, the two actors stand face to face without touching, verbally leading us through their mounting excitement and pleasure. Unfortunately, they were positioned so that each one faced a different side of the audience. I was able to see Wiger but not Wilson, whose back was turned to me. I missed her facial expressions and couldn’t hear her dialogue, which was spoken in low, breathy tones as befit the occasion. The audience opposite me could not see Wiger and probably had equal trouble hearing him. Since the two ends of the stage were unoccupied, I couldn’t understand why the actors weren’t turned 90 degrees so the audience could get a side view of each during this key scene. Instead everyone saw it only through one character’s eyes.

Significantly, both Duffy and Wilson were in Dreamwell’s production of Beyond Therapy last fall. One of plot lines of that play concerned a gay man leaving his male lover for a woman, and Duffy played the abandoned lover then, too. I haven’t confirmed this with any of Dreamwell’s staff, but I can’t believe this is a coincidence. Whether it is or not, it has implications for the whole season. Duffy’s richer, deeper characterization in the current play resonates with the earlier one, reinforcing the way each successive production has built on the ones before, and strengthening the overarching exploration of the relationship between identity and truth. Identity is authentic only when the result of self-understanding and deeply considered personal choice. Neither social norms nor other people’s expectations—even those who love you the most—can tell you who you are. Cock delivers this conclusion with utter conviction.

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