‘Cock’ doesn’t need to go to great lengths to please

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For a play with only a sandpit stage, burlap-lined chairs and four characters, Michael Bartlett’s “Cock” has a lot to crow about. Yes, its bold title is an attention-grabber, but the award-winning show, which made its West Coast premiere last weekend at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco, also challenges its viewers to question the definition of love at the fundamental levels of sexuality and self.

“Cock” is a love story — or maybe an anti-love story. Classifications, the story suggests, can’t actually grasp at the soul of the thing they describe. Definitions aside, though, “Cock” follows John (Stephen McFarland), who identifies as gay and maintains a committed, long-term relationship with his boyfriend, M (Todd Pivetti). But when the couple decides to take a break, John makes a move that neither man expects. He falls in love with someone else: W (Radhika Rao), someone who happens to be a woman. Suddenly, John finds himself swept into a tangled world of desires and emotions that are entirely foreign to him but entirely entrancing too.

Though the play is set up with startling simplicity in terms of the script, cast and setting, the story is so sharp that it threatens to cleave its main character in half by the story’s climax. Stuck between two lovers, two identities and two possible lives, John is forced to choose with whom he wants to be and who he wants to be.

Outside of the play’s frightening and complex questions and the fast-paced dialogue, one of the most powerful aspects of this production is the choreography of the actors on stage. The unusually small, oval stage would seem to be a limiting, rather than powerful and expressive, setting for this story. But the actors navigate this space with such deliberateness and care — through scenes of anger, intimacy, despair and love — that their movements became as meaningful as the words themselves. In an actual cockfight, as in the show, one wrong move could lead to a character’s destruction. The right move, though, could lead him or her toward true happiness.

The actors’ verbal sparring proceeds in tandem with their physical movements. It’s a fluid tirade of witty innuendos, challenges and jokes that balance the problematic nature of the show’s underlying uncertainty with a lighter, though no less poignant, tone. Through this banter, the actors draw their unwilling characters together into a single unit.

What actually seems to bond the characters together, however, is not their proliferation of dialogue but their continual failure to find the words they want to hear. This contributes to one of the strangest but most impactful qualities of the story, which is that the characters don’t grow along the standard “character development” track but exist in a seemingly inescapable stagnancy.

There are a few minor uncomfortable qualities of the story and production. John is portrayed as a whiny, shallow character, so it’s a bit difficult to imagine how he has managed to gain, and retain, the affections of anyone, let alone the two very different characters of M and W. This is not to say that McFarland does a poor job of portraying John. On the contrary, he seems to fully grasp the flighty and expressive energy the character calls for. But as a character in and of himself, John seems lacking in personhood and in traits that viewers can identify as appealing to M and W.

On a separate note, there is also a point in the dinner scene when the script drags and the building suspense suddenly goes limp. Fortunately, the momentum picks back up for a bitterly beautiful finish. Overall, the production, directed by Stephen Rupsch, gracefully transforms the minimalist aspects of this play into massive, reconceptualizing challenges that don’t come with ready-made answers.

“Cock” will be playing at the New Conservatory Theatre Center until Oct. 12. Tickets are available at nctsf.org.

Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].