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Manbites Dog Theater Company opens its 2013-14 season with the British play Cock, by Mike Bartlett. The work is a minimalist play that, in this production, operates with no set, a simple “full-up” lighting design, and a simple modern costume design. The work takes place in present-day without reference to days or dates. The work runs a scant ninety minutes but it needs no more time to accomplish its goal. It presents four characters in an in-depth character study of a man at a crossroads, and the three characters he faces as he makes the decision of a lifetime.
Cock is, for the most part, a comedy; Bartlett’s lines are sharp, witty, and prone to causing laughter. He presents us with John (Phil Watson), a twenty-something who discovers he has a decision to make. John has been living with his gay lover, M (Gregor McElvogue), for the past seven years, and has developed the stereotypical seven-year itch. On a holiday from his mate — a time in which he feels the relationship is over — John meets and, much to his surprise, is attracted to, a woman, W (Emma D. Miller), who feels the same attraction. It is intimated that the two sleep together, but the new relationship is fraught with peril. John cannot reconcile his new arrangement with his old, and seeks understanding from the only person he feels he can talk to, M. John is in a quandary; he wants to return to his old, familiar relationship with M but cannot completely forget his newly-forged bond with W. M is having none of it, and he wants John to invite W to dinner so that John may, once and for all, rid himself of the demon desires he feels for this woman, and tell her to be gone; he is to be in a committed relationship once again.
John does as M asks by arranging dinner for the three of them, but John has not, as M assumes, committed to his old relationship. He decides on dinner as a time in which he will compare M to W and select then which of his lovers he will choose. But there is a monkey wrench in the machinery: John realizes that he has not, indeed cannot, make this life-changing decision. And, to further complicate the situation, M has invited to that same dinner his father, F (John Honeycutt), because he feels that he is not equipped to deal with this unforeseeable change in his lover’s life and needs his dad’s support.
Bartlett has created four unique and likeable characters that we, as viewers, come to care about equally. The playwright places us in a similar situation to John; we, too, need to know which way John will go. Bartlett understands the decision that John must make is not just between M and W, but also between the life of a gay or straight man and which he will live. To M and F, this seems to be a simple decision: John must choose the lifestyle that he has long ago committed to. But W is just as adamant that this new arrangement will open up an entirely new world of love and children and Christmas and, as John states it, “normalcy.”
We come to feel John’s inadequacy – this is, indeed, a life-changing decision. John is fraught with his need to feel connected; it is his break with M that has left him adrift. It is here that Watson gave such a stellar performance. His quandary was evident in every interchange with these characters. He might have understood finding another lover, but finding love in the arms of a woman is a new and, to him, dangerous situation. What his choice comes down to is whether he will choose normalcy as he himself sees it, with M, or whether he will choose normalcy as the world views it, with W.
These characters become deep and strong in a very short time. Watson, in his Manbites debut, adroitly revealed a man ill-equipped to deal with this kind of life-changing decision. It is a decision he thought he had already made. In fact, both M and F feel he has made the decision and cannot believe that he is still unsure. But W is exerting a strong hold on him; and, as dinner draws nigh, John’s battle within himself rages on. These four characters are locked in a battle for a man’s very soul. To have witnessed the actors’ interactions in so simple a setting was to tear off the mantle of civility and see a world-class battle of real-life characters.
Director Jeff Storer has chosen two very familiar voices to present the argument for M (McElvogue and Honeycutt are mainstays in the Triangle theater scene). These two characters present what has been, and the actors were razor-sharp in their portrayal. On the other hand, Storer has selected two new voices for John and W (Watson and Miller, while Duke theater veterans, are making their Manbites Dog debut). Watson as John was sharp in his portrayal, but he also gave us the very dynamics of a man caught in a web he cannot break. Miller as W had a decided pull on him, and Miller played her advantage as the new and heady relationship.
The arrangement cannot be clearer: the new vs. the old; the familiar vs. the unfamiliar; straight vs. gay; life and love with a woman vs. life and love with a man. And ultimately, life as he thought it should be vs. life as the world believes it should be. John cannot decide. And, indeed, we as viewers cannot decide for him.
Our dilemma is that there is no good or evil here. We are unable to state, as we view these two sides, which John should choose. Both sides present their arguments with skill and alacrity; we are possessed with the same soul-searing pain as John as he tries to decide his life’s path.
Cock is a play that rivals nitroglycerin; it is small, but packs a powerful punch. Manbites Dog’s production is compact, visceral, and dynamic. These four actors work brilliantly with no props, set, or costumes to bring about a terrible and pivotal decision for John. This work is deceptively simple and as deceptively cloaked; this comedy becomes a drama in very short order. There is laughter, but there is also blood, sweat, and tears. Cock is a beautifully crafted work that is simple and deadly, like a dagger.
Cock continues through Saturday, October 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.