Cock Review: Randy Harrison as an indecisive lover in a bisexual triangle

“You’re a lame duck, you’re a stream,”  a character was screaming oddly, just as my screen froze while watching  the streaming of the play “Cock.”  

Was this a problem with my computer, or with the website of Studio Theater, the D.C. theater that is presenting this 2009 play by Mike Bartlett? It is this  theater’s first production after a year’s hiatus, in what they promise will be the first all-digital season in its 42-year history. So glitches would not be surprising.

For a split second, though, I wondered whether the freeze was on purpose; there was, after all, the uncanny free-association of duck and cock, stream and streaming.  More to the point, there were in fact several times when I had trouble deciding whether what initially struck me as a glitch might be a deliberate directorial choice.

The play is a fiery, funny, provocative triangle with John (the only character given a name, portrayed by Randy Harrison) the focal point of a contest for his affections between his long-time lover M (Scott Parkinson) and W (Kathryn Tkel)  a woman he meets after breaking up with M. But then John returns to M, then is drawn back to W, then isn’t sure. If this sounds like algebra, it’s more like geometry, the triangle becoming a quadrangle at an awkward, awful, climactic comic dinner party to which John invites W, and M invites his father F (Alan Wade) so he doesn’t feel outnumbered. 

  When I first saw this play Off-Broadway in 2012, the production was super-stylized,  the confrontations delivered with a rat-tat-tat that felt gladiatorial, especially since scenic designer Miriam Buether had remodeled The Duke on 42ndStreet to resemble an arena made of unfinished wood.  The set in Studio Theatre’s production (with no named set designer) is an oval of dirt underneath fluorescent lights – which could be a cockfighting ring. (The play’s title is straightforward, made explicit when John talks about what W’s body is missing. But it’s also a pun.) The characters are barefoot and circle one another, with a buzzer sounding in between scenes. But the dialogue is slowed down, the acting more realistic (a winning mix of credible and comic) – except, initially, for Parkinson.

When in the first scene John tells M that he wants to break up, M attacks him through mockery and insult. (It was M who called John a lame duck and a stream.) I thought Parkinson’s mannerisms were weirdly exaggerated, jerky. But then the thought occurred to me: Maybe he’s supposed to remind us of an angry chicken.

Most of my doubts, though, concerned  the videography.  Although helmed by the theater’s artistic director, David Muse, Wes Culwell is credited as director of video, and there are many moments in this production when our attention is diverted from the dialogue to the video technique. Although all four characters in the play were filmed acting together in the theater, there is extensive use of split screen. Sometimes two characters are in split screen facing one another, even when they are evidently actually in the same room. Sometimes there are three screens in one, one for each of the lovers, sometimes all four characters in Zoom-like configuration; sometimes two in close up at the top half of the screen, while the bottom half of the screen is the same two in long shot. Some of this is occasionally effective, but  too many times,  distracting, especially when one of the actors moves partially out of his or her camera frame, so is only half seen. Was this deliberate? If so, to what end? Is it to tell us their character is only half present? 

This seems unlikely. Still the idea got me thinking about the things that make “Cock” more timely than it might otherwise feel, given its exploration of bisexuality, which might have seemed daring when Bartlett wrote it in his twenties in the UK in 2009 (seven years before he made his Broadway debut with the Tony-nominated King Charles III) Nowadays, philosophical discussions of the B in LGBTQIA have been supplanted by pressing politics surrounding the T. (If there are philosophical discussions, it’s about the I.). And so it’s the more general and abstract half-presence that feels relevant – the ambivalence, the neither here nor there; half in the world, half out of it; half theater, half film.  

John tells W he doesn’t know how to act when he’s in the room with both her and M are together.  He has been a certain person when he’s been with her and a different person with M. 

“Be yourself,” W advises him.

“I have absolutely no idea who that is,” he replies. 

The characters in “Cock” may well be gladiators, but seen through our pandemic lockdown lens, the fight seems less to be for love or even for sex, but for certainty.

Cock
Studio Theater through April 18
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by David muse
Director of video Wes culwell
Lighting designer Colin k. Bills
Sound cue design James bigbee garver (as of january 2021)
Text and dialect coach  Elizabeth forte alman 
Dramaturg Adrien-alice hansel 
Production stage manager Allie Roy
Cast: Randy Harrison, Scott Parkinson, Kathryn Tkel, Alan Wade
Assistant director Annabel heacock
Running time: 100 minutes
Tickets: $37

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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