C*ck

Who am I? That is the bold question the equally boldly named play C*ck, currently in performances at the Duke Theater, dares to ask as it examines a man whose sexual identity confuses him, to say the least. This show, by Mike Bartlett, is a daring comedy that explores timely issues and asks relevant – and extremely uncomfortable – questions.

For a play with such a bold name, C*ck opens inconspicuously. After the audience is seated in the stadium-style theater in the round, two actors enter the room quietly and wait for the audience to stop talking. We then witness John (Cory Michael Smith) and M (Jason Butler Harner), a long-time, live-in couple, bickering. Even though they, as John puts it, “f**k and chat and cook and eat and everything,” he realizes they are “fundamentally different people” and leaves M.  John then returns to M, saying he wants to come back to him, but also admitting he has been with someone else – a woman (W, played by Amanda Quaid).  Yes, that is M for Man and W for Woman. And they are the opposite of each other. What follows is a painful exploration of sexuality and love, as well as identity. Even though no blood is shed, it is, in fact, a battle, and we are spectators to a great deal of pain.

Directed by James Macdonald, C*ck is staged with no props or costumes other than everyday clothes, and the scenes are separated by a brief ring of a bell. But it is a compelling production where one cannot look away from the action onstage. Even though walking in circles around each other may not sound like action, it is – and it is mesmerizing. The characters almost never touch when onstage; sex is staged by them slowly circling each other while maintaining intense eye contact. It is even more intimate than some sex scenes I have watched that take place in bed.

What inspires the action, ironically, is John’s indecision and inability to to make a decision regarding his future. After identifying himself as a gay man, John realizes he actually enjoys sex with a woman – quite a bit, in fact. And she enjoys sex with him. While attempting to decide who he wants to be with, John says, ““I suppose I like both. But that’s ok, right?”

It is easy to see why John is drawn to both M and W. Performed by Harner, M is sarcastic and self-defensive, but he is also steadfast in his desire to be with John. When John asks him if he still loves him, he says, “Always…unfortunately for me…And that means I will always be unhappy.”  When he offers John a homemade cheesecake, delivering a tearful monologue about why chose to bake John’s favorite dessert in a last attempt to win his love, he inspired a surprising amount of sympathy. And W, who was married young and divorced not long after that, is also confident being with John will bring her happiness. Quaid gives a self-assured performance of a woman who has been hurt but is willing to risk a great deal for a man she thinks is special.

The awkward trio finds themselves at a dinner party, joined for some reason by M’s father, F (Cotter Smith). The party quickly escalates to a battle, as both parties (each of whom have been promised by John that he will pick them) attempt to win John’s love for keeps.

At first I found myself wondering what it was about John these people found so irresistible. At one point, W says to John, “Him and me. We must both be stupid. What is it about you?” But as the show progresses and his indecision becomes more and more apparent, it became clear that it is the indecision that they are attracted to. His lack of identity gives them the opportunity to make him what they want. He can be whatever they want him to be – even gay or straight.

“Some people might think you were scrawny,” W says to him, “but I think you’re like a picture drawn with a pencil. I like it. You haven’t been colored in.”

It is clear he hasn’t been colored in, and even though both W and M both long for him to let them do just that, he is unable to. At one point John lists all the ways W is superior to M and all the reasons he would prefer her, but he still clings to his identity of being a gay man, describing how it gave him a cause to support and believe in and a group to belong to.He expresses discontent with this identity that was crafted for him, but he still felt the need for a label to identify him, which resonated strongly, given the current political dialogue about gay marriage and equal rights.

But as John vibrates between W and M, causing them both apparent agony, I lost more and more sympathy for him. He reminded me of Hamlet, whose indecision proved to be his downfall and whose inability to mature and make decisions caused pain for so many people. As the night progresses and more and more is asked of him, John retreats into a fetal position on the floor, hiding from everyone around him. He is urged to be himself, but he responds with, “But I have absolutely no idea who that is.”

C*ck may be a script about indecision, but it took me no time to decide it is an extremely timely, moving and relevant play.

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