REVIEW: Studio Theatre’s ‘Cock’ highlights ‘British Invasion’ series.

Ben Cole, Scott Parkinson, and Liesel Allen Yeager (Photo by Teddy Wolff)

Ben Cole, Scott Parkinson, and Liesel Allen Yeager (Photo by Teddy Wolff)

At first it seemed that the play’s title, “Cock,” was an unnecessarily gratuitous attempt to salaciously attract attention. But within the first few minutes of the Studio Theatre production, it becomes obvious that in the hands of director David Muse, we need to have a firm grip on the arms of our seats, because we are in for an emotional ride. “Cock” is the story of a love triangle, and most of us know from painful experience that such triangles are devastating and that nobody escapes from one without lasting scars.

But in “Cock,” the triangle is much more complicated since John (Ben Cole) has blundered into a dilemma of his own making that includes breaking up with his longtime lover “M,” which stands for “man” (Scott Parkinson), and entering into an affair with “W,” for “woman” (Liesel Allen Yeager). It all devolves into both M and W pushing John to make a decision and select one or the other. John, unfortunately, dithers and is incapable of making that decision. Cole handles John’s indecisiveness so adroitly that his mannerisms at times are reminiscent of a Hugh Grant performance.

John, facing an angry M, tells him that W is not especially attractive and is actually manly. The sensuous Yeager is many things, but she is not unattractive or manly as M discovers when he invites her to his apartment for a confrontation that includes bringing his father, “F” (Bruce Dow), a popular Washington area actor not usually seen in more dramatic productions. He handles this one so effectively that we can expect to see him in other heavier roles.

In the staging of the minimalism of Mike Bartlett’s tough, acerbic play, the actors perform on a stark circle of dirt designed by Debra Booth, which becomes the perfect setting for the gladiators to verbally battle and circle each other. No matter how intense, they almost never touch. Even in one erotic scene, John and W have sex while never touching each other.

The audience sits on three sides of the stage. The setting could be a cock fight or a boxing match where all the posturing and jabbing takes place. The combatants obey some version of Marquis of Queensberry rules, pausing and changing direction when a buzzer sounds, like the signal at the end of a round. The ringside atmosphere is emphasized by the harsh, bright lighting designed by Colin K. Bills, with tubes of fluorescent lights directly over the center ring. Nothing takes place in shadow so there can be no turning away from the anger and frustration.

The minimalism also enhances Bartlett’s raw dialogue and allows the intensity to be appreciated without the distractions of a more traditional setting and costumes. Bartlett, a noted playwright, is part of Studio Theatre’s British Invasion Festival, a showcase of the best young talent working in the United Kingdom. It is also important to point out that the show’s dialect coach Ashley Smith has schooled the performers so well that the British accents sound natural and unobtrusive.

While mesmerizing, Bartlett’s play is painful to experience. And under Muse’s direction we are almost part of the action, ringside. If we are splashed with some verbal blood, so much the better. It is 90 uninterrupted minutes of watching the kind of life-defining experience we understand and maybe even have experienced.

Cock” continues through June 22, 2014, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW. Tickets are $39-$85 and available at 202-332-3300 and online here.

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