Some writers strive to put real life on stage. British playwright Mike Bartlett probably uses those scripts to light his cigarettes. His aggressively-titled 2009 play Cock, now at Kinetic Theatre, is about as provocatively manufactured as they come and your enjoyment of this brisk, bitter comedy will depend largely on how willing you are to be a playwright’s plaything.
At its heart, Cock is one of the oldest stories in the book. A young man, John, dumps his long-term partner to take up with a new one, and eventually the three come together to hash out loyalties and futures. Barlett’s been very clever decking out the play in such outlandish drag you might not realize how many times you’ve seen it before.
For starters, the long-term partner is a man (known as “M”) and the piece on the side is a woman (“W”). Bartlett sets up this dynamic but deliberately tramples notions of sexual orientation, behavior and identity. Then, taking a few pages from the David Mamet stylebook, he fills the play with brittle elliptical dialogue spat out by a clutch of characters too intelligent for their own good. And he employs abrupt, cinematic jump-cuts, jerking the story from one confrontation to the next.
On the whole it’s an intriguing evening of theater. Yes, you realize you’re being manipulated and yes, you can see him building, winding up and releasing his clockwork theatrical gizmo. But that he’s done it with such precision and polish provides its own reward.
Like a dog-sled captain, director Andrew Paul drives the play’s quartet (M’s father also shows up) with brutal efficiency; this is a furious and ferocious foursome. Ethan Hova (M) turns passive aggression into a chilling blood sport. Erika Strasburg does amazing work rooting W’s feral attacks in a sick sort of kindness, and Sam Tsoutsouvas turns the father’s condescension and hidden-agenda solicitude into something silently radioactive.
As John, Thomas Constantine Moore has the hardest job; Bartlett requires the actor to make ambivalence and self-protective inaction the fuel of the play. But Moore’s performance is constantly compelling.
Though enjoyable, this Cock could leave a bitter taste in your mouth.