Cock Fight: Studio Theatre’s provocative look at the battle for love

To use a British colloquialism, Mike Bartlett likes to “cock about” with words and concepts. Last year Studio Theatre presented the provocative playwright’s Contractions, a short, sharp black comedy that toyed with the meanings of the word in its title by focusing on a pregnant woman and obligations to her employer — conflicting contractions.

But the playwright made his name with the earlier drama Cock. Bartlett makes much hay out of wordplay here — and really the best way to describe Cock is to borrow a couple other British phrases featuring the titular word. The focus is on one man, John, who makes a cockup (mess) of his relationship to another man by falling in love with a woman. Is he bisexual or just all-a-cock (mixed up)?

Although it might sound like it, Cock is not cock — to use one more British definition of the word, this time meaning nonsense. Ben Cole makes John just appealing enough that you can see how both a man and a woman could fall for him — while also portraying him as an indecisive, immature boy-at-heart who can’t get enough attention. As it goes on, you might not quite grasp why either his male lover M (Scott Parkinson) or his female lover W (the beguiling Liesel Allen Yeager) want to keep him, but the fact that both do propels this play to its dramatic climax.

Director David Muse follows Bartlett’s stage direction to keep things minimal and focused on the action, working with designer Debra Booth to stage things as if in a cockfighting ring. But it’s not simply a fight for John’s love between M and W. John steps into the ring too, dueling — and simulating sex while fully clothed — with each in rounds. Toward the end of the play Bruce Dow appears as M’s father F. It ramps up the tension but is otherwise rather ill-conceived.

While not all real-life cockfights end in death, few gamecocks emerge unscathed from the blood sport. It’s not giving away anything to say the same holds true for Cock.

After all, except in Hollywood — and seedy massage parlors — isn’t a happy ending total cock?

Cock (starstarstarstar) runs to June 22 at Studio Theatre, 14th & P Streets NW. Tickets are $39 to $85. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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