05/18/2012 03:42 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

On the Culture Front: Cock Opens Off-Broadway, PEN Festival Storms New York and More

Mike Bartlett's buzzed about new play, Cock, from the Royal National Theatre opened to a thunderous and mostly deserved standing ovation at the Duke Thursday night. The intimate one-act focuses on the shitstorm that evolves out of a young man's inability to choose between his longtime male lover, M (Jason Butler Harner), and a woman, W (Amanda Quaid) who through a chance encounter awakens something in him he never knew existed. As the character names would suggest, Bartlett and director James McDonald have brilliantly distilled this world down to the bare minimum. The action takes place on the tiniest circle of space (colored like a greenscreen) in the round amidst risers built to look like that of a cockfight. The design brings the audience almost painfully close to the actors and provides an unparalleled closeness. It also brings the audience closer to each other, making it almost impossible to look at the stage without seeing another spectator. This can take some getting used to and is awkward at times, but it's all part of the experience.

The dialogue is so exact, and there are many truly hilarious moments -- so much so that it plays like a farce. What it lost, though, is a nuanced conversation about the Kinseyan view of sexuality being a fluid force. The young man, John (Cory Michael Smith) is the only titled character in the play, but he's an incredibly spineless and indecisive man. It's no doubt that this is Bartlett's intention, but having such an inconsequential main character, it threatens to throw this carefully calibrated world off balance. Luckily Harner is so spot on and Quaid perfectly measured yet charming to boot that this preverbal ping-pong of words rarely touches ground. The final moment may be unsatisfying and the idea of sexuality as a fluid entity undercut by a character who exemplifies the indecisive label that bisexuals are often sadly ascribed, but this is thrilling theater and the best farce off-Broadway at the moment.

On the literary front, the PEN world voices rolled into town the other week with a series of thought-provoking events featuring a who's who of great thinkers. Playwright Tony Kushner, filmmaker Marjane Satrapi, and writer Rula Jebreal, whose first novel, Miral, was turned into a film of the same name by ex-lover Julian Schnabel. Add the Kronos quartet underscoring the trio's conversation to the mix and you have a truly bizarre yet exhilarating evening.

The members of Kronos were at the top their game playing with unparalleled precision and the joy of embarking on uncharted territory. The festival opened with a party at the Standard Hotel that was even more bizarre. A chamber opera (one soprano to be precise) distilled the story of A Clockwork Orange through a warped feminist perspective and immensely atonal score by Kevin Malone. Luckily, it was only 35-minutes.

Salman Rushdie squeezed passed me right before it started to grab a front-and-center spot. I bet he's regretting it now. He was definitely displeased earlier in the night when a tribute to Christopher Hitchens turned into a bit of a scathing critique mostly due to Nation writer Katha Pollitt who voiced many criticisms and lobbed accusations of chauvinism at the late brilliantly polemic writer. Rushdie was so agitated that when the Q&A began he leaped from his front row seat to condemn the panel. It wasn't all bad and was actually fascinating to listen to. The other panelists included New Yorker writer George Packer, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, Nation Publisher Emeritus Victor Navasky, and moderator Ian Buruma, who was just about perfect in posing complex questions about Hitchens' place in the literary canon and what it was like to have a beer (or five) with him.

Hitch's agent even got up in the end and shared his last words with the crowd: "Captalism... downfall." Unsentimentally acute up until his last moment, he will sorely be missed. The last event I went to was a screening of Satrapi's new film, Chicken with Plums, which largely abandons the animation of her much-loved Persepolis for live action. Sadly, it was a massive disappointment with too much voice-over cluttering the story and not enough of the whimsy of her first film and the wonderful tension it created. I recently spoke with Dustin Lance Black (look for that next week in the Onion's AV Club) and he told me how the excessive voice-over in his new film, Virginia, tanked it at the Toronto Film Festival. He went back into the editing room, though, and came out with a wonderfully complex and engaging film. Hopefully, Satrapi has a chance to do the same. And please, go back to animation.

On the music front, a curious new group (Timber Timbre) opened for Feist at Radio City. Their cool murmurs and fuzzy, melancholic notes reminded me of when I saw Leonard Cohen there a couple years ago. Their set was unfortunately short, and the cavernous space threatened to swallow them up as it did with Feist even though she brought nearly two dozen people to help her wage the fight. Most problematic was her choice for the torturous trio, Mountain Men, to back her up. Their voices never rose above a half-cranked lull and their earthy swaying was grating. For her part, Feist played some of her more tuneful tracks, a number from the new album, Metals, which is quite strong. For whatever reason, though, it never quite resonated as it did listening to it on my speakers at home. Still, I had "Graveyard" stuck in my head on the walk home.

On the dance front, I went to the opening of Cedar Lake's new season this week at the Joyce Theater. They're one of my favorite companies in the city and i haven't seen them for so long, but i was ultimately underwhelmed by the program presented Tuesday night. It opened with an intriguing voice-over for "Violet Kid" in which the speaker states that you decide whether you like a piece within the first thirty seconds. It took me a little longer, but unfortunately, the talented dancers didn't win me over. Hofesh Schecter's choreography alternated between being cluttered in inconsequential. These feelings were largely echoed in Crystal Pite's Grace Engine. The piece in between those two, "Annonciation" by Angelin Preljocaj of Ballet Preljocaj, was more promising. At it's heart, it's an intimate dance between two women who represent opposing forces. It's religious in theme but can be enjoyed on a purely visceral level. At its heart, Ceder Lake is about these kind of primally stirring works. I hope to see more of them from the company in the future.

On the culinary front, I attended a private Chablis dinner held at Scott Conant's (Scarpetta) culinary suite. It was a pretty decadent affair with courses like Sea Urchin Gnocchi and Roasted Guinea Hen paired with truly great Chablis wines that can be found mostly in your local liquor store. One of the best, Roland Lavantureux's Petit Chablis 2010, can be bought online in a half-bottle for $16. After tasting nearly a dozen wines, it's clear Chablis has something over the other whites.