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Cock Throbs, Then Goes Limp: Obvious Puns Aside, the Dobama Production Doesn't Deliver on a Promising Set-Up

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Okay, first of all, don't get your hopes up. If you're thinking a show titled Cock will display one or more penises for your amazement and delight, you'll have to go shopping elsewhere. However, if you're up for a battle (cockfight, if you will) between a gay Man, a straight Woman, and John, the fellow who is the object of their affection, then playwright Mike Bartlett has something for you.Although the piece, set in Britain somewhere, gets off to a fast and crackling start, it ultimately limps home bogged down by a contrived theatrical device and slow pacing. It is staged with stark simplicity by director Corey Atkins, with audience seating surrounding the bare rectangular playing area. This creates a focused arena for these amorous gladiators.

The unnamed and edgily witty M (for Man) is navigating an ongoing relationship with John, a pleasant fellow with hardly any discernible character traits. This is evident to Man, as he continually pokes his lover with put-downs ("You're fudge all over!" "You're a sprawl, a mob."). We learn that this anger is resulting from John's bisexual dalliance with W (for Woman), whom John met at a tube station and subsequently boffed. He is actually quite taken with her and her vagina, a part of the human body with which he has had little experience. "It's quite nice," he opines. "What," she responds, "like a travel lodge?"

Amidst the clever and often quite funny dialogue that ensues between John and Man and John and Woman, it becomes clear that the lure John emanates comes from his utter emptiness. Both Man and Woman can write on this bipedal "tabula rasa" in any way they choose, giving them a sense of power. But the neat trick in Bartlett's script is that John actually holds all the controls: His passivity is his leverage and he wields it with a shrug and a blank stare. Plus, a striptease by M and sex between John and W, each done while fully clothed and standing, function as a slick metaphor for how we expose and hide ourselves at the same time.

Thanks to these elements, the first two segments of Cock rise to the occasion. Bartlett dissects how these three folks, and all of us, define ourselves through others. And Atkins direction is crisp and fluid in these scenes.

As M, Drew Kopas is wiry and intense with a sharp tongue, revealing his affection for John in those moments when he's not insulting him. And Lara Knox plays the interested but rather befuddled W with an honest directness that works well against M's mini-tirades.

Trouble is, the playwright finishes the 100-minute one-act with an extended dinner party scene where M and W finally meet each other, as F (M's very supportive Father, played by Bob Keefe) shows up to add further complexity. This all feels more than a touch contrived. Unfortunately, the traffic jam of people in this final chunk forces a slow crawl, as silences replace repartee and the audience is nudged into imagining profundities where none exist. In the pivotal role of John, Andrew Gombas is charmingly obtuse early on, absorbing the verbal pinpricks from M and W with patience. But there has to be a deeper level to John than just a numb kind of incomprehension and indecision, and Gombas never quite finds those more interesting facets of John's character.

The power dynamics of relationships, gay or straight, can certainly be compelling. But Cock never makes good on the fascinating premise, and promises, set up in the first half of the show.

Cock: Through November 23 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org
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