Jason Butler Harner and Cory Michael Smith in the New York production of Cock.
“The Heart wants what it wants.” Poet Emily Dickinson penned that observation back in 1862. Today, those words are recruited regularly to defend shifting affections (perhaps most famously by Woody Allen in a 2001 interview with Time). Like death and taxes, the travails of love are one of life’s sad certainties. And with Cock, British playwright Mike Bartlett has written a cleverly incisive contemporary analysis of emotions run riot. This month, Profiles Theatre brings us the play that dares polite theatergoers to speak its name.
A smash in London before it hit New York in the spring of 2012, Bartlett’s drama ponders the consequences when a gay man’s partner falls for a woman. More than a twist on the standard love triangle, the show examines the manifestations of desire and the often fluid boundaries of sexual identity. And it’s a perfect fit for Profiles, which has long demonstrated a penchant for such take-no-prisoners playwrights as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Neil LaBute. “It’s not line, line, line,” notes director Darrell W. Cox. “The dialogue overlaps; characters double back. And even though no one touches and no one takes their clothes off, the sexuality is shocking.”
Bartlett’s first drama, My Child (about a young boy victimized by warring parents), debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2007. It was a tough subject, toughly rendered, and his themes haven’t gotten any sweeter—think globalization, climate change, power, and corruption. “When I was younger, theater certainly felt quite old fashioned and stuck in its ways,” he says, “but I think that has changed over the last 10 years. I’ve found it’s the perfect form to explore psychology, society, politics, love, and life. I think so much dramatic entertainment now is personal and recorded that theater seems unusual and fresh, as it’s shared and live.”
The play Cock, written by Mike Bartlett, debuted in New York City and London before coming to Chicago.
Cock grew from personal observation. “I knew many people who had sexual relationships with both men and women, but wouldn’t define themselves as bisexual,” relates Bartlett. “Instead, they had just fallen in love. I felt most discussions of sexual preference, certainly in plays, hadn’t spoken about this—and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, and the implications for progressing LGBT rights.”
Interestingly, Bartlett reports, audiences in London and New York seemed less interested in gender issues and the sexuality of his characters than the questions of love their predicament raised. “Most people were equally concerned with the more universal problem of falling in love with two people at the same time. It’s become clear that the play is far more about indecision and love than sexual orientation.”
Offering his take on the play, Cox suggests, “Mike is essentially looking at how the choices we make in life and how we go about presenting ourselves to the world are dictated by our need for acceptance and love. And how it’s really hard to follow your own path. And how many times, when you think you are making your own choice, you may be just accepting what’s comfortable, and not even be aware of it.” February 20–April 6, Profiles Theatre, 4139 N. Broadway, 773-549-1815