The title of Mike Bartlett’s play Cock, now alive and kicking at SNAP Productions, suggests something genital, wouldn’t you say?  Toss aside such simple expectations. And, despite so many proliferating plays about gay men, this covers new ground, even if the question of identity is at the center.

The heart and soul of the vividly worded 90 minutes deal with love and commitment while probing the idea that sexual orientation is about “what” a person is, not “who.” Witness four exceptional performances giving this script compelling dimensions, dynamically paced and perceptively realized by director Joshua J. Mullady.

Certainly the staging implies roosters flapping, flying , feinting and snapping at each other. Mullady makes that clear from the get-go, having transformed SNAP’s standard seating into a kind of arena. And he emphasizes a constant swirl of movement. Moreover, he follows through on Bartlett’s concept that this look into reality doesn’t need props, doesn’t need nudity, doesn’t need actual kissing and fondling to makes its points. The script even replaces character names with initials. Bare and bold.

The premise seems basic. Young John questions his ongoing, physically exciting relationship with  controlling, somewhat older M(an). John meets W(oman), more of a soul-mate and with whom he has different, tender sex. John is torn about the meaning of love. Then those three people, in one narrow space, try to tangle with the complexities while M’s F(ather) joins the fray, almost like a referee. 

The dialogue zips and zings between John and M as they feint, charge, hover and fall back trying to understand what’s happening and to win points about the value of what they mean to each other. Then, John and M go into quieter corners, gently moved to come together into an enfolding warm circle. Note, FYI, the language about bodies is thoroughly explicit.  

Emotional truths come across with meaningful and verbal clarity, even while all four actors speak with convincing English accents. Impressive skill.

Joseph Schoborg’s John has the genuine, vulnerable uncertainty of youth. As M, Eric Grant-Wells completely conveys the well-written insecurities of someone trying to take charge of the relationship and of himself. Caitlin Staebell gets across every right dimension of self-aware W, discovering more about herself in John’s wondering eyes. Playing F, the father, Brent Spencer thoroughly portrays the man’s gentle reasonableness. All four of them stay emotionally believable at every moment.

Mullady has chosen much interesting between-scene music. Unfortunately neither he nor producer Ronnie Wells have included any information about Bartlett in the program book, an infrequent oversight. This play won an Olivier Award after its London 2009 premiere at the Royal Court Theatre and Bartlett’s King Charles III from 2014 won the Critics Circle Award. The playwright’s work has often been on display all over London including at the National Theatre. He also wrote The Town TV series plus BBC scripts. More info is at . 

This exceptionally devised piece of theatre could apply to all kinds of gender relationship. Bartlett prods us to look not at what others want from us, but to find depth and definition by knowing what we want for ourselves.   

Cock runs through March 27 at SNAP! Productions 3225 California Street Thurs-Sat. 8 p.m. Sun: 6 p.m. Sun. March 27 2 p.m. Tickets: $10-$15.

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