Describing the overarching quality of the newest play at GableStage as “taut” is rather like calling a tax audit “worrisome.” Neither word fully does justice to the swirl of complex emotions each is meant to summarize. Certainly, that’s true of Mike Bartlett’s provocatively titled Cock, which is meant to evoke a ferocious cockfight -- and more.
A hit in London and New York, the dark comedy by the young British playwright explores love, betrayal, taking risks and how relationships fulfill or diminish us. Like Duncan Macmillan’s powerful Lungs at the Theatre at Arts Garage earlier this season, Cock is stripped-down, intense theater performed on a stage that is almost bare, except for red velvet-covered ropes suggesting two sides of a boxing ring.
At issue is the implosion of a seven-year relationship between John (Ryan Didato), a young British guy, and his more successful, somewhat older partner M (Nicholas Richberg; the “M” signifies “man”).
Feeling undervalued and too often put down by his ultra-competent, verbally combative lover, John strays in a most unexpected way: He jumps into bed with W (Julie Kleiner), a woman he has noticed on his commute to work each day. Terrified yet thrilled by new sensations and emotions, he imagines the possibility of the picture-postcard future W suggests they could share.
The suffering M, however, has no intention of ceding the battle over John. At a hellish dinner “party” in which M and W each think John will dump the other, M’s widower father -- F (Peter Galman) -- joins the fray, fighting for his only child’s happiness. As in a championship bout, the blows (all verbal, yet plenty dangerous) are meant to be devastating.
Cock is fascinating for the audience, challenging for the artists. The actors stalk and circle each other but almost never come into physical contact. Yet their the in-the-moment descriptions of sexual experiences are vividly evocative, despite the fact that no one sheds so much as a shoe. Getting theatergoers to “see” and feel what the characters are going through is an act of collaborative imagination, one pulled off brilliantly by director Joseph Adler and his excellent cast.
Didato is appealing and empathetic in a role that might otherwise grow wearisome because of John’s waffling indecision. And, like his cast mates, he sports a convincing, unwavering British accent. Kleiner, though dressed in an oddly dowdy fashion by costumer Ellis Tillman (he makes the guys look much better), glows in the role of a young woman who probably ought to give more thought to her choice of mates. Galman, a busy New York and regional theater actor, balances his character’s harsh words to the female interloper with supportive warmth for his son’s imperiled relationship.
Richberg is, simply, superb. As is often the case, the actor crafts a performance that is utterly convincing, complex and always compelling. His M possesses a quick, withering wit, a weapon he’s quick to wield in asserting his dominance over John. He’s amusing, at times bitchy, and he makes you see why M frustrates John. Yet when John cuts M to the quick, Richberg’s thrumming fingers and the set of his mouth signal his pain in a way that suddenly deepens an already rich play. Bravo.