John is having the quandary of his young-adult life. He’s fallen in love unexpectedly with a divorced woman who also loves him and believes he can give her the sort of marriage she never had. And he’s breaking up, uncertainly, with his boyfriend of several years, in a relationship that grew into a strained co-dependence but is still based on love. He would settle for both. He can have only one.
The skillfully written “Cock,” whose unfortunate name seems only to serve the playwright’s desire for a prurient title and manages to trivialize his own play, is a riveting 90-minute exploration of a question with no real answer. British playwright Mike Bartlett constructs the no-way-out plot, then richly nuances it with every new scene. At some point, John’s predicament catches you: He’s swerving back and forth on his future, his needs, his happiness. All the time, you watch this desperate and sometimes funny process play out, and keep changing your mind about whether he’s doing the right thing for himself. (Or for everyone else – which, of course, can never happen.)
Some people will see this as a take on bisexuality or a challenge to the way we think about choices in general. And some will see it as an unnecessary demand to make John decide just who he is – a demand the play also questions even as it makes the case that John must make a choice. It’s heady stuff, and it’s also a director’s play – no props, no scenery, just competing ideas and a heavy dose of frisson waiting to be turned into theater.
Deborah Block, the producing artistic director of Theatre Exile, has done so elegantly, first by choosing a cast with chemistry and then by infusing the production with such intensity, it seems ready to catch fire at any moment. She’s helped by Christopher Colucci’s wistful sound design, and by the intimacy of Theatre Exile’s Studio X in South Philadelphia. You feel almost like a voyeur watching this play set in the round, on Colin McIlvaine’s handsome six-sided stage where the cast moves nimbly – but also as if they’re confined to a cage and you’re not even there (although you may be less than two feet away).
Wes Haskell, a wonderfully agile actor from New York who appears to move at times as if the balls of his feet have built-in rollers, plays John with a vulnerability that’s palpable. His face says predicament in many different ways, all written large. John Jarboe, in a performance as smart as I’ve ever seen him give, plays the hang-dog boyfriend with a lot of hurt and a hint of jealousy. Mary Tuomanen, among the city’s boldest theater artists, plays the girlfriend with a mix of patience and subtle but sure ferocity – she knows what she wants even if confused John doesn’t. Ben Lovell is focused and natural as a fourth character in the play who gives advice, but with a motive.
There’s more than a little raw talk and just enough sex in this play, all done in full clothing and without even touching. Ah, the power of suggestion. Now, if we could only suggest to the overwhelmed John what to do, and be certain that it will work, we’d have a happy ending. Then again, we’re not on Broadway, we’re somewhere closer to real life.
_“Cock” runs through Nov. 17 at Theatre Exile’s Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets. 215-218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org.