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Not the Usual Four-Letter Word: Cock at the Duke Theater

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On a 42nd Street block that used to house peep shows, The Duke Theater is a resonant location for a play called Cock. For this four-actor drama, The Duke is entirely reconfigured as an arena where onlookers are up close and personal as if watching a cockfight, taking bets. Four characters spar. You could say they vie for John's male member. The sexual politics of Mike Bartlett's play could be one linear reading: John (Cory Michael Smith) is living with M (Jason Butler Harner) and has sex with W (Amanda Quaid), finding he likes it. This comes as a surprise as he has had so little experience with women. Then, the quandary: each works to lure him from the other, to win and control John. M's father, F (Cotter Smith) is brought in, rounding out the square. John, as much an Everyman as his name suggests, has to sort out who he is.

This superb, tight 90-minute play breaks with conventions. A man's identity is, after all, an old subject in theater. In the 21st century, gender matters: are you simply who you desire? Staged here, the physical act of sex, for example, is a joining of foreheads as fully clothed John and W move around each other, coming closer and closer till they finally touch. The lights are on, and from any seat the viewer can see the audience, and be seen as well, taking in the quite believable vision of the sexual act, performed tender this way.

John's sexual preference is only one part of the discourse. The cultural imprint includes Christmas dinners, the hearth and home. So many of our norms are brought to the table in a final dinner scene, as M and W duke it out. Pushed and pulled, John can't decide between them and goes with what's easiest, and then coils up, as if protecting his privates. Something was mortally wounded in this cockfight. That you are not sure what, is this richly spare play's triumph.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.