Jason Butler Harner and Cory Michael Smith
in Cock
(© Joan Marcus)
Jason Butler Harner and Cory Michael Smith
in Cock
(© Joan Marcus)
There's no question that Mike Bartlett's Cock, now at The Duke on 42nd Street, has an attention-grabbing title. Fortunately, the play itself proves equally provocative, especially in James Macdonald's extremely well-acted production.

The work centers on John (Cory Michael Smith), who leaves his long-term boyfriend, referred to in the script as M (Jason Butler Harner), and, much to his surprise, finds himself falling in love with a woman, referred to as W (Amanda Quaid). John, who had never thought of himself as bisexual, flees back to his clearly dysfunctional former relationship with M, but can't put his feelings for W out of his head. Ultimately, he finds he must choose between them.

It's a deceptively simple premise, enriched by complex characterizations and lean, muscular dialogue that ramps up the tension within the play. Also contributing to the effectiveness of the production is the spare, somewhat stylized acting. Certain physical actions are literally performed while others are rendered in a more abstract fashion. The latter includes the first sex scene between John and W, which is verbally graphic but not physically so, allowing the humor of the scene to be more clearly presented.

Smith has an easy charm and projects a sense of vulnerability even when John is clearly acting like a jerk -- a trait that helps to keep the audience invested in the decision he must reach by play's end. It also helps that the actor has terrific chemistry with both of his co-stars.

Harner comes on strongly from the get-go. However, he knows when to pull back and underplay certain lines for maximum impact. The aggressively bitter persona he creates seems entirely appropriate for M, particularly since it's balanced by a deep-seated insecurity that threatens to overwhelm his character.

Quaid has perhaps the most difficult challenge within the piece, as W is set up as a nearly ideal match for John and the actress must take steps to not just appear too good to be true. She proves up to the task, with subtle shades within her performance to indicate W's doubts and fears.

Rounding out the cast is Cotter Smith as M's father, who shows up to support his son at the rather farcical dinner scene that brings M and W face-to-face for the first time. The actor is saddled with the play's most blatantly expository speeches about the social and political implications of John's choice in relation to his identity as a gay man. However, the veteran actor handles the lines with humor and aplomb.

Finally, functioning almost like a fifth actor in the piece is the striking scenic design by Miriam Buether. The designer has constructed a wooden arena where the audience is seated on all sides looking down upon the stage, as if literally watching a cock fight. It proves to be a claustrophobically intimate environment that helps to heighten the emotional stakes within the play.