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The title of this play is a bit of a red herring. I suppose it’s meant to refer to what’s “between” John (Thomas Constantine Moore) and his two lovers – his boyfriend of many years, “M,” played by Ethan Hova, and the woman he’s recently met and fallen in love with, “W,” played by Erika Strasburg – but the play is not nearly as racy and rough, in language or attitude, as the word “cock” would conjure for the American imagination. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing: it’s a nice surprise to find that the play eschews in-yer-face explicitness, but unfortunately its title also risks turning off audience members who would otherwise be charmed and taken in by this smart, complicated, and riveting play about the complexities of coupling in a “post-identity politics” age.

Cock is, in fact, only very tangentially about what hangs between the legs of three of its four characters. More centrally, it’s about a young man’s struggle to make sense of who he is by trying to figure out what he wants from a relationship, both physically and emotionally. John is a strange character to place at the center of a drama, because unlike most dramatic characters – who are defined in terms of “what they want” and “the obstacles that keep them from getting what they want” – John seems immobilized by an incapacity to define his desires. He’s a gay man who suddenly finds himself in a sexual relationship with a woman, and his inability to choose between M and W becomes not only an existential crisis for him, but also a condemnation of the kind of identity-politics that insists on categorizing and pigeonholing people in terms of sexuality and sexual preference.

Cock

Thomas Constantine Moore as John. Photo courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

The play has a deliberately disorienting structure and style: playwright Mike Bartlett notes that it should be staged as if it were taking place in a cockfighting arena, and Johnmichael Bohach’s set offers a credible replica. A low wall encircles a floor covered in sawdust; distressed corrugated metal panels form the walls behind the audience risers, which surround the playing space, with bench seats up close for spectators who want to get intimate with the action. The space is otherwise devoid of all furniture and props, and the playing style it demands takes inspiration from the likes of director Ivo van Hove – that is, spare, stark, stripped to the essentials. A character says he’s going to sit down and then doesn’t; objects get mentioned, but they are neither seen nor mimed; W moans as John fingers her, but Moore is not even touching Strasburg. All that busy work of pretending and faking and imitating and indicating is abandoned as the actors focus on the presence of the thoughts and emotions expressed by the text. It’s thrilling and captivating.

It’s also, at first, rather confusing. This is a play that demands a little patience. The first section of the play offers glimpses, in snapshot-style, of John’s relationship with M, hopscotching forward in time; the second section fills in the gaps with John’s intervening relationship with W. Nicholas Erickson’s sound design provides buzzing bells and static-y radio to help jump-cut all these moments together, but the first two sections are hard to put together.

The payoff comes with the third section, when the warring lovers spar over John at a dinner party, to which M has invited his father, “F” (Sam Tsoutsouvas), as reinforcement. From this point on, metaphorically, John is the weakest bird in the cockfighting arena, pecked at from all sides by the other characters, all of whom have much more clearly defined wants and needs. At the same time, he’s also the “prize” the other birds are fighting over. That fight is both entertaining and horrifying. As M, Hova neatly treads the line between charmingly catty and manipulatively abusive; Strasburg wears an equally sharp set of spurs as the direct, winning, shoot-from-the-hip W. Director Andrew Paul is unafraid of letting his actors and audience stew in cringingly awkward moments: for example, when M and W finally realize that John has not yet chosen one of them over the other, there is a long, awful silence in which Thomas Constantine Moore masterfully embodies the anguish of his indecision, his face a grimace of shame, embarrassment, and self-disgust.

That anguished silence was, for me, the biggest takeaway from the play; in the end, although John finally makes a choice, it’s a paralyzing one – and one that reveals the universality of the contours of abusive relationships, no matter the gender of the abuser and victim. Although John’s waffling initiated the contest, he’s its ultimate victim: his bedraggled, scarred, and bloodied carcass is what gets left behind in the sawdust.