A password will be e-mailed to you.

There is a trend in modern theater, particularly dark comedies, where playwrights overuse nudity as a means for shock. I’ve seen several plays in DC without strong endings, so the main character strips while the action transitions from the realistic toward the ethereal. It’s a lazy trick, and it’s what I thought of when I found out The Studio’s newest production is called Cock. Thankfully English playwright Mike Bartlett subverts this trend: his title might be racy, but his characters do not shed their clothes (exactly). In fact, the minimalist drama strips away typical stage movement to the point where there the audience fills the missing gaps. There is no choice but to listen to the sharp dialogue, which veers from wit to heartbreak, sometimes in the same moment.

There are no props on the stage, which is covered in dirt. After harsh fluorescent lights flicker on, two men enter from opposite sides. They are John (Ben Cole) and M (Scott Parkinson), lovers who reach the sort of impasse that can only happen after years of cohabitation. John feels like M stifles him, while M maintains they’re like brothers (the sibling simile is strange to John since brothers typically do not fuck). They decide to break up – director David Muse signals a change in time with a siren, which grows infrequent as Cock continues – and later John returns to M with a peculiar problem: John has met a woman he likes, and he’s worried about what this means for his identity.

M is understandably flabbergasted – he’s the sort of sensitive guy who hides his feelings with sarcasm – and indecision plagues John. Then there is a scene where John meets W (Liesel Allen Yeager), and they playfully negotiate how John will give women a try. Because John reintroduces M into his life, John finds himself in a situation where he must choose between him and her. M decides to resolve the conflict by inviting him to dinner, and it’s even more awkward than you would expect (there’s a twist involving a fourth character, but it’s not worth ruining the surprise).

cock-402-print

The characters rarely touch each other, so Bartlett’s dialogue is a guide for what they’re doing. The cumulative effect is kind of like phone sex: a character says something link, “Take your clothes off,” and then we’re meant to imagine his or her naked body. The same goes for relatively mundane movements. During the dinner scene, M announces when he brings out the main course or wine since there are no props available. The reason for this conceit is twofold: Muse and Bartlett force extra attention on the performances, and eschewing action is a way to eliminate the veneer of decorum that governs each scene. At one point W shouts, “You’re down in the dirt with the rest of us,” and her line has literal meaning thanks to the soil that fills the stage. The actors and characters have no chance to busy themselves with a distraction. They’re in each other’s faces, which makes the play all the more intense.

The characters are familiar archetypes, except the actors subvert expectations with extra depths of emotion and intelligence. Parkinson, who was last at the Studio for An Iliad, gets most of the laughs with a character who’d rather have the last word than be happy. M’s wit is his defense mechanism, and his pointed language is a welcome alternative to John, who languishes in sexual limbo. Cole looks like a bit like Richard E. Grant, and there’s a whiff of Withnail to John, who acts more aloof and spaced than he probably is.

There is a key scene late in Cock where John finally is ready to say what he’s feeling, and it reveals the complexity of his relationship to M and W, respectively. On one level, a life with a woman would be easier for John. But John’s life with M is a routine, and M is happy to preserve a role for John that’s more comfortable than challenging. Differences in education/class/age are important, too: Bartlett’s dialogue hints that W is a better fit for John because they’re on the same level, roughly, while M struggles to show how his more affluent life is the better fit (the play implies that John started as M’s young trophy boyfriend). Even if it didn’t happen, there’s a sense that Muse had his actors workshop their characters for weeks or months. They’re not affected, and feel authentic even if there is no chance for realistic movement.

There’s a monologue late in Cock that is all about the struggle between nature and nurture, and how it applies to John’s predicament. John’s conclusion sounds silly at first – he argues that what matters is what you like, not who you are – but the difference is also a canny way to reconcile identity and preferences. W has reason to be optimistic with John’s realization, only the follow-through is significantly more difficult (W is probably the most open-minded character in Cock, and Yeager’s performances strikes a perfect balance between vulnerability and a strain of self-worth). By the end of Cock, M puts W and John in a situation that must have an outcome. What he does not count on is that no matter what, no one will be happy with it.

Cock is at the Studio Theater until June 22nd. Buy tickets here!

X
X