Ben Cole as John, left, and Scott Parkinson in “Cock” at Washington’s Studio Theatre.

You feel at certain knuckle-gnawing moments of “Cock,” Mike Bartlett’s sizzling seriocomedy of straight-gay indecision, that something is about to explode — that something being the brain of its fence-straddling protagonist, John.

He’s a young man in such sexual flux — not just torn between two lovers, but drawn, halved and crushed — that he’s utterly undone by choice. The freedom to be with whomever you want may seem like a gift to most people. To John, it’s a torment, especially because of the partners of opposite temperament to whom he’s attracted: assertive, needy, demanding Type A’s who can’t for the life of them ascertain why John would have even an iota of doubt about his devotion to them, now and forever.

As one of those partners is a man and the other a woman, the setup of “Cock” — hey, I don’t name them — has the potential to propel us into the realm of the simple-minded rom-com. But this crackling play, staged with acerbic brio at Studio Theatre by the ace director David Muse, is a far slyer work. It’s an exploration of the emotional impracticality of sexual ambiguity, of how, to our own detriment, we may be forced to commit to an identity that takes into account only a small fraction of who we really are. As such, it falls enjoyably into line with the best drama created by other astute relationship-probers, such as Neil Labute.

Clocking in at a sleek 95 minutes, “Cock” positions its characters as psycho-dramatic gladiators, who meet, aptly enough, in the ring. Debra Booth’s rawly devised set is a circle of earth framed by a semicircular plywood wall. Attached is a bench, to which an actor may retreat, for a sip of water and a time out. It has the look of a chamber for some primal ritual. Which is exactly what this evening is. After a buzzer sounds, we are invited to eavesdrop as John (Ben Cole) — the only named character — and live-in partner M (Scott Parkinson) enter the ring in the midst of a “row.” (The play is British.)

“It’s not working,” says John. This declaration of faltering connection is hogwash to the outraged M, played by Parkinson to the sour, scintillating hilt. M can’t believe he’s being thrown over. And even more humiliating to him, for a woman, W (a spectacular Liesel Allen Yeager), who goes after John even after learning that he’s gay.

Or is that designation even accurate? The lean, Cheshire Cat-grinning Cole is charmingly persuasive as a man aware of, and perplexed by, his pansexual appeal; his John is caught off guard by the degree to which he’s aroused by the forceful W. (Although John attempts to mollify M by describing W as “manly,” she’s nothing of the sort. And yet, she appears to share with M an aggressive approach in matters of the heart; the varying objects of John’s affections tend to be alike in their intense possessiveness.)

The play’s electricity is conducted through Bartlett’s skillful steering of John, M and W toward a truly harrowing dinner together in M’s flat, where they’re joined by M’s father, F (Bruce Dow, in a terrific turn that amplifies the evening’s motif of sexual uncertainty). M and W each expect the dinner to end with the other cast out of John’s life: the badinage as Parkinson and Yeager’s characters size each other up is so entertainingly charged you wait for the fluorescent bulbs in Colin K. Bills’s sharp lighting design to sputter, spark and shatter in response.

Bartlett, as was revealed in Studio’s 2013 mounting of “Contractions,” his taut drama about office politics, is specially attuned to the scalding language provoked by sexual jealousy. Here, though, he goes deeper in both his portraits of clinging lovers, and their childish reactions to possible rejection, and of the man they seem intent on holding onto, in spite of his inability to send out anything but mixed signals.

“Work out what you are!” John is commanded, laughably — as if the mysteries of attraction can be resolved in time for dessert. The dangerous game John undertakes, however innocently, is in holding other hearts hostage while he sorts his out, a project that may never in fact be completed. Perhaps, John wonders aloud, human sexuality is not a switch one can turn this way or that, but is cloudier, messier and endlessly churns in a thick pool of ingredients, “like a stew.”

Muse and company bring this provocative argument to an intriguing boil in a play in which, ultimately, nobody but John really seems interested in the truth of this matter. And no one manages to get what they want.


by Mike Bartlett. Directed by David Muse. Set, Debra Booth; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Alex Jaeger; sound, James Bigbee Garver; dialects, Ashley Smith. About 95 minutes.
Tickets, $39-$85. Through June 22 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW.
or call 202-332-3300.