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The decision facing John, the play's only named character, is the choice between a life with his longtime boyfriend, "M," or his female lover, "W."

A three-way affair in Manbites Dog Theater's Cock 

"You have to make a decision." That's the refrain everyone offers to John (Phil Watson), the cripplingly indecisive protagonist of Mike Bartlett's Cock, now playing in a production directed by Jeff Storer at Manbites Dog Theater.

The decision facing John, the play's only named character, is the choice between a life with his longtime boyfriend, "M" (Gregor McElvogue), or his female lover, "W" (INDY contributor Emma D. Miller).

Cock stages these relationships, and the ups and downs experienced as John jumps between one or another, as a series of cockfights—literally in the form of a circular ring on the stage that acts as the only set, with a ringside bell that marks the beginning and end of each scene. Presented in the round, the characters circle each other, approaching and retreating as they trade barbs and insults.

The show's stripped-down aesthetic means the intensity must be borne by the actors, who don't even have costume changes to hide behind. John's passivity could threaten to make him bland and forgettable, but Watson grounds the character with a childish insecurity masked by humor that, while making him obnoxious as a life partner, turns him into a lovable if pathetic theatrical presence. McElvogue's bullying boyfriend, meanwhile, dominates from early on, even as his deep layers of vulnerability gradually bubble to the surface in what turns out to be the play's most affecting performance.

Miller's W is the least neurotic of the bunch, confident and sure-footed, though hints of her own insecurity are evident throughout. The only character who gets short shrift is M's father, "F" (John Honeycutt), who appears late in the action and is not given enough time to act as much more than a plot device.

John interacts with his two lovers separately throughout the first half of the play, but the second half is an uncomfortable dinner party where everyone comes together to hash out their differences and battle for John's love. The production loses some steam in this stretch, partly because Bartlett's characters indulge in a long debate about the utility of labels like "gay" or "straight" and their biological or social underpinnings.

It's not an uninteresting or unimportant topic, but it feels a bit editorially motivated, instead of artistically. John's vacillation is treated early in the play as a joke, and his first sexual experience with W is funny, more a consequence of John's chronic inability to understand his own needs than an exploration of the vagaries of human sexuality.

When focused on the characters, however, the play is quick-witted and filled with energy. If the ending is exhausting, it's at least in part because the characters themselves are worn out, beaten down like birds in a cockfighting ring.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Sexual perversity in the Triangle."

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