Cock (at the Duke on 42nd Street)
John (Cory Michael Smith) has a decision to make: Does he stay with M (Jason Butler Harner), his longtime male lover? Or commit to his new girlfriend W (Amanda Quaid), the first woman he’s ever slept with? But this isn’t a drearily literal diddle on the nature of bisexuality, or even some milquetoast meditation on small-i “identity.” There’s a bigger question on the table: “Why are you telling me I have to know what I am?” asks John, not impishly, not pertinently, desperately even. “It doesn’t matter. I love him because he makes me toast in bed and he’s scared of plastic bags. I love her because she makes me feel as old as I really am.”
Mike Bartlett (Earthquakes in London) is a shiveringly gifted young playwright who conflates the political and the personal so cunningly, you barely realize what he’s pulled off until he’s got you cold. John may be his most wonderfully frustrating creation to date, a fantastically incoherent boy-man who speaks brilliantly and brutally to an entire’s generation’s post-Boomer nebulousness. The battle over John is really a contest over our most basic assumptions about self-determination in a choice-based society: Do we have any responsibility to declare ourselves? Are we compelled to select who we are? Can we be trusted with anyone’s heart, even our own? Not since The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? have I walked out of a play feeling quite so shaken to my very dialectics. Freely profane but never distractingly so, Cock grabs us by the crotch and asks us who we are. Then it squeezes, asks again, and gets a different answer.
It also manages to be uproariously funny, blistering, and bleak, yet strangely respectful of the subatomic mysteries of the quantum heart. James Macdonald (A Number), operating at the top of his considerable game, stages all of this in a literal cockpit — plywood bleachers arrayed concentrically around a tight fighting ring, lights at full blinding strength throughout — where our players literally circle each other, sizing each other up, exploring strengths and weaknesses, tender spots and erogenous zones, caressing and spurring each other with words alone. They remain fully clothed and barely touch, yet this is perhaps the most erotic entertainment to hit Times Square since the pre-Giuliani era. (Smith and Quaid’s hands-free, nearly touchless sex scene is intense.) Smith proves himself an adept poker player in a role that challenges our basic vanities — it would be easy to dismiss or revile him if he and Macdonald weren’t so demonically skilled at turning the mirror on us. Harner (a high point of the ill-fated Fox drama Alcatraz) is funny and frightening as a man who’s gambled everything he is on a single choice: His delivery is a broadsword-stroke, and he makes M’s many misses as mock-heroic as his periodic hits. Playing M’s apparent nemesis, Quaid reveals herself as an actress of subtly civilized savagery. Till now, I’ve seen her play only children and childlike adults; this is the first time I’ve seen her assay a Woman, and I’m floored. Her perfectly modulated W is a force of will in pursuit of a quixotic goal — an infinitely receding man, all the more attractive for his lack of self-definition — yet there’s nothing of the pathetic or foolish or cheap in the performance. What she chooses to conceal is as carefully selected as what she’s chosen to reveal. She’s got that in common with Bartlett. An excellent ensemble in an excellent play: Cock is a rite of spring you shouldn’t miss.
pool (no water) (at 9th Space, 150 First Avenue, through May 26)
Meanwhile, in the shadows of 150 First Avenue, Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water) — as realized by director Ianthe Demos and the One Year Lease Theater Company — is just the sort of busy, bitter pit of despair downtown black-boxes were built to house. An ensemble of five (no names, no specific identities) tells the harrowing tale of an art star and her still-starving former confederates: When she invites them to her mansion in the sun-baked hills of success, a horrific accident puts the hostess in a coma. Her “friends” — who collectively narrate — are suddenly impelled to turn their rich friend’s tragedy, and her body itself, into an objet trouvé. Is this grim venture aesthetic, parasitic, or openly vampiric? Are the artists driven by envy, hunger, or pure, Total Art ruthlessness? And to whom does the final product belong? In 60 minutes of shadow-cut theatrical witchcraft, Demos and her superb cast make Ravenhill’s vinegary misanthropy dance, literally and figuratively. Pool (no water) goes on exactly as long as it should, and no longer. Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking) is mostly granite-faced and exhibits a limited (possibly nonexistent) sense of humor about his fanged brood of black-clad, gallery-prowling semi-ferals. But even at its most abstract, this production is never dainty or evasive or insulated with pretense: It feels personal and urgent, not unlike good art, hard drugs, rough sex, and vicious crime.