Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Going Off Half-"Cocked": A Review of Mike Barlett's play "Cock"

COCK. [Or Bob and Rose Redux]. A play by Mike Bartlett.

[NOTE: This is a review of the published play, which originally appeared in London before being exported to New York, not of a particular production or performance.]

Well, after reading this play in its published form, I'm glad I didn't waste money going to see the new production. I just finished reading it and I'm jotting down my impressions quickly, because Cock is the kind of play you forget not long after seeing -- or in this case -- reading it.

The premise may seem new, but isn't. A man named John has been in a committed relationship with another man [simply called "M"] for several years but feels some dissatisfaction with his mate. During a brief "separation" John meets a woman [simply called "W"], has sex with her, and thinks he may have fallen in love, even though he's never had the slightest interest in women before. He goes back to M, however, but continues to see W. In a completely contrived situation [but then the whole play is contrived] John suggests that he, M, and W all have dinner together at M's home, where M's father [simply called "F"] also shows up to give his son moral support. Without giving anything away, John seems to make a choice but still seems conflicted at the end. For me a highly offensive note of the latest production is that the whole thing plays like some kind of boxing match, with Gay Man vs Straight Woman for the love of [unworthy] John. 40 years after Stonewall and we're still not past this shit?

Plays, stories and films about men being torn between women and other men are nothing new. [The movie A Different Story, the play Find Your Way Home, British TV's Bob and Rose are just a few.] The "new" wrinkle is the playwright's suggestion that John is bisexual, although it seems unlikely, even if he'd never had a heterosexual experience, that he wouldn't have realized long before that he was attracted to women. Surely in college he knew plenty of women, saw sexy ladies in advertisements, knew a few people who labeled themselves bisexual. His explanation is that everyone was congratulating him for coming out, he found a support network, etc., but this is all quite unconvincing. There was nothing to prevent him from dating/sleeping with women, as some gay men do on occasion, and he admits that he was always just interested in guys. Some may buy into the notion of "latent heterosexuality" but I think it's a crock.

John comes off less as a genuine bisexual than as a gay guy who's disillusioned with his lover [and therefore, ridiculously, with gay life], likes the way this rather desperate woman makes him feel like a man [whereas his lover makes him feel like a child], yet the play never examines the fact that there are plenty of men out there who don't feel as if they're "real" men unless they're fucking or involved with women. Playwright Bartlett simply dodges this aspect of internalized homophobia. Let's put it this way -- if John is bisexual, he definitely has a preference, and it isn't women. [It must be said that Bartlett does seem to capture the tiresome angst of some bi-identified individuals on the Internet, where he probably got most of his ideas and much of his dialogue.]

Late in the play John complains that it was his parents' generation who came up with "gay" and "straight" and who needs the labels now that "we have our rights," to which his lover wisely answers that we don't have all our rights and people are always trying to chip away at them anyway. John -- and perhaps playwright Bartlett -- may have a point that it shouldn't matter who or what you're sleeping with, but both miss the point that the disparity between acceptance of hetero and homo behavior is still wide, and Gay Pride has for years been one way of addressing and correcting that. Instead of Gay Pride, Cock gives us a gay man about to meet his boyfriend's female lover and saying it will be "THE ULTIMATE BITCHFIGHT!" Yuchh!

Just as big a problem is that Bartlett fails to create three-dimensional characters. I know we're long past the days of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, but Bartlett can't even give his characters names let alone real substance. M comes dangerously close to being a gay stereotype. W never explains why she clings so desperately to a man who's essentially queer [be he gay or bi] -- why can't she just let the fellow be gay and find a perfectly nice straight fellow -- just because of one bad marriage? F for Father, a gay-friendly straight man who loves his son and cares for John, delivers more of the Gay Lib stuff than his son does, but that's probably not a bad decision on Bartlett's part, but he, too, seems to exist just to make a few good points. I suppose the point could be made that John is a conflicted bisexual stereotype as well, as if he needs both male and female lovers when Bi advocates always claim that is simply not true of bi people.

One could argue that at least some of Bartlett's dialogue is clever, but that likely means he'd be better off writing sitcoms than serious theater. In interviews the unprepossessing Bartlett refuses to reveal if he's gay, straight, bi, or even A for Asexual. Again we get the "I'm against labels" argument, but I've always suspected that those who are against labels are just queers who are in the closet out of shame and embarrassment. Reading Cock, I got the impression that Bartlett simply did a little research on the Internet, watched some old TV shows, and threw together something that he felt would be provocative, giving it an attention-getting title [Cock indeed!], and hoped for the best. The reviews have been surprisingly favorable, perhaps for the actors or perhaps because straight critics want to seem trendy and gay-friendly and gay critics are terrified of being seen as politically-incorrect [whereas I don't give a shit]. I find Cock to be so generally clueless and superficial that it could easily have been written by some straight married guy who doesn't have the vaguest understanding of what he's even writing about. I mean this is a play in which a gay man and straight woman are pitted against each other [whereas in real life many gay men and straight and gay women have wonderful non-sexual relationships] and both are more or less presented as "bitches!" How progressive is that!

Reading the play gives you time to explore and go-over the dialogue, which you can't do in the theater. I have to say that ultimately it doesn't matter whether you think John is gay or bisexual, should stay with M or go off with W. The fact remains that Cock just isn't a very good play any way you look at it. A writer of some depth, intelligence and real talent might have made something of the premise, but more likely a writer of that stripe wouldn't start with such a stupid , rather offensive, and even somewhat homophobic premise to begin with.    

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