Who Are You and What Do You Want?: I watch a play

at the Studio Theater, Cock, playing through June 22. It’s by Mike Bartlett, the guy who did Contractions, and like Contractions it’s a high-concept play with few characters and a lot of emotional intensity.

The high concept is that John, having broken up with his long-term boyfriend for no real reason except his own itchy ambivalence, meets a woman and falls for her hard. But then the boyfriend takes him back, and suddenly he has to choose–and he can’t, for almost two hours, he just can’t do it. There are issues of sexual identity–he’s always been gay before, although he’s never really questioned his somewhat shaky reasons for identifying that way–but there are a lot of other issues in play as well.

Cock pulls off an incredibly tricky balancing act, respecting all the possible reasons John could tip one way or the other, and then playing these reasons off against each other: He can have biological children with the woman (and I was gratified by how easily and undefensively this play accepted that desire as meaningful and valid), and she treats him much better–but then she finds out how infuriating he can be, and starts to sound a lot like his boyfriend. You start to see where the boyfriend is coming from. Moreover, John has been with the boyfriend for a long time; he’s been forgiven a lot in this relationship, and his boyfriend makes it clear that this forgiveness will continue to be extended to him. John wants to be loyal to the boyfriend. But the sex is better with the girlfriend. But….

I don’t think this play can work if you’re just exasperated with John. The actor has to completely sell you on this character and draw you into his inner life. This is especially hard since he’s not as intelligent as the other characters, only intermittently self-aware, not hyperarticulate. He kind of flails around a lot, emotionally, and does a lot of damage by it.

I totally loved Ben Cole as John. He’s taller than the other actors, and he uses his big awkward height to make his flailing, uncomfortable movements seem all the more unsettled. He beats his arms against his sides, he goes up on his toes or visibly cringes, he plays with his face, he bows his head and even bows all the way at the waist. It’s exaggerated, but not “actory”; I found it a really compelling performance of discomfort with the self, grinding ambivalence, and shame. He’s very good at being berated! Liesel Allen Yeager as the girlfriend (“W”) is also great, very fierce, and the other two actors are wonderful, but Cole is a huge part of why the play worked for me.

And then too, it worked because I saw something of myself in John. Not in the sexual-politics stuff. I thought that was all well-handled but it wasn’t what grabbed me. What Cock actually made me remember quite forcibly was the awful demoralization which comes with trying to quit drinking and not being able to–or, hey, I have no idea what my own level of personal responsibility even was here, so let’s leave aside questions of ability and just say that I kept saying (to myself and to others) that I had quit and then just… not. John’s situation is even harder because there’s no obvious right direction; but the play gets the emotional devastation of that kind of ambivalence so well, the way your entire sense of self gets eroded.

The play is also very funny! Lots of snorts and a few big laughs from the audience. It does get intense, but everybody needs a good fast punch now and then.

About Eve Tushnet

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