With a name like Cock, Theatre Exile’s latest offering piques the interest of pretty much everyone who giggles about naughty bits occasionally. More important, though, is the fact that the production, in Studio X’s intimate center-stage style theater right off East Passyunk Avenue, leaves audience members with a lingering sense of something going terribly wrong with humanity and, thus, perfectly right with the play. This incarnation of Mike Bartlett’s Laurence Olivier Award-winning drama is a welcome and explosive addition to local Philly theater.
Taking place in modern day Britain, Cock opens with playful domestic banter between John (Wes Haskell) and his boyfriend, M (John Jarboe). Sardonic at times and heartwarming at others, their dialogue degenerates swiftly into an all-out gay-on-gay bitchfest examining the more perverse and crueler aspects of the modern domestic—and culturally antiseptic—gay couple. Insecurities abound, and they seemingly lead John to find comfort, and sexual and romantic validation, in the arms of W (Mary Tuomanen), who—and this is rather important—is a heterosexual woman.
With zingers only two gay guys could muster peppered lightly (and sometimes harshly) throughout the production, playwright Bartlett exquisitely captures the intimate brutality of male-male relationships, and his exceedingly precise dialogue finds deftly able handlers in the very-easy-to-look-at Haskell and Jarboe. As a result, audience members find little empathy for either of them as characters; in fact, their outright cruelty—M in his control freakdom and John in his outright manipulation and stunted indecision surrounding his sexuality—makes humanizing both characters an arduous task. It seems, though, that Haskell and Jarboe, led by director Deborah Block, not only meet but exceed this goal.
Most surprising is the performance of Mary Tuomanen as W. A character who otherwise is more incidental than integral, Tuomanen’s W ignites a fire of indecision and life assessment in Haskell’s John. W’s plain manner and speech, plus Tuomanen’s obvious feminine beauty, add another complicated dimension to this exploration of sexual orientation, identity and custom. Along with Tuomanen, Benjamin Lovell’s portrayal of F, M’s father, adds another disastrous, mortifying chapter in this modern-day human tragicomedy, with culturally relevant and provocative statements to Haskell’s John, like “Everyone gets confused sometimes. You’re just confused; you’re gay.”
Now that New Jersey joins the ranks of states legalizing gay marriage, Philadelphians would do well to see this very disturbing, thought-provoking warning label attached to the modern gay (or straight) romantic relationship. Indeed, at the end of Cock—and regarding the validity of conservative notions of coupling and domestic partnership—much is said by saying nothing at all.
Through Nov. 10. $35-$40. Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St. theatreexile.org