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Mike Bartlett's visceral new work explores the effects of being picked on at any age.

Eleanor Matsuura, Sam Troughton, and Adam James in Bull, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Carol Rosegg)
Many of us know what it feels like to fight to keep one's job in today's economy. But tough-talking British playwright Mike Bartlett — last represented on these shores by the provocative Cock — tackles this topical subject with unusual brutality in his 55-minute play Bull, now being given an exemplary production as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters.

One immediately expects to see some physical violence upon entering the venue. Director Clare Lizzimore and designer Soutra Gilmour have configured a pseudo-boxing ring in the middle of the space — one that some patrons literally stand around — while the rest of the audience sits above as spectators. But the uppercuts that are thrown by Tony (Adam James) and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura) against rival Thomas (Sam Troughton) turn out to be purely verbal.

While the three are actually corporate teammates, we soon learn that one of their jobs will be eliminated by head honcho, Carter (Neil Stuke). And the self-confident, highly manipulative Tony and icy Isobel know exactly how to hit the weaker-willed Thomas both above the belt — focusing immediately on a smudge on his face and the cut of his suit (which is exactly the same as Tony's) — as well as below it. And as they wait for Carter to arrive, the gamesmanship escalates. Is Isobel lying about being sexually abused to throw Thomas off guard? Did Thomas screw up by not bringing his sales figures? And what does it really matter whether Thomas is willing to put his face against Tony's well-sculpted bare torso?

If much of this behavior seems like little more than schoolyard bullying, that's probably Bartlett's point. It's easy to see Isobel as the ultimate mean girl or Tony as the popular ringleader, neither of whom has ever grown beyond their early childhood roles. And while Thomas is physically their equal — despite some comments to the contrary — he has obviously been socialized to accept his status as a loser. However, the consequences of not fighting back prove to be far more serious at his age than a black eye or a bruised ego.

In lesser hands than this thoroughly committed cast, the material might seem considerably slighter than it does here. Troughton is extraordinary as the browbeaten Thomas, especially as we helplessly watch him self destruct, both physically and emotionally, in the piece's harder-to-stomach second half. Matsuura wholeheartedly embraces Isobel's coldhearted behavior, never once showing a flicker of genuine warmth. James' Tony is the epitome of smug: A man who knows his looks and his bearing can overcome any deficiency. In his one scene as Carter, Stuke perfectly embodies the stereotypical corporate boss who cares far more about the bottom line than his employees.

Whether you're standing just outside the ring or are nestled safely above it, by the end of Bull you may feel like you've been sucker-punched in the gut.