at the theatre: cock & tribes

Coincidentally, two of the more satisfying evenings I’ve had at the theatre this summer took place off-Broadway. (Perhaps coincidentally is the wrong word. Looking back on Broadway’s mostly disappointing season “inevitably” seems the more realistic choice.) Both of these plays do something most commercial fare would rather eschew: look at how we define ourselves – and where we belong in the social order. Mike Bartlett’s Cock is the more aggressively titled of the two and gives you a pretty good idea that you can expect to be grabbed by the dialectics. Should John stay with M, his longtime male lover or commit to W, the first woman he’s ever slept with? Far from the navel-gazing psychobabble you might expect, Bartlett’s take no prisoners approach doesn’t just hold up a mirror, it pile drives it into the audience’s face, proving that sticks and stones ain’t nothing next to a well-crafted equilibrium that’s been wholly upended. The four cast members are well matched but I found Jason Butler Harner especially heartbreaking as the older lover:  a man so clear-eyed about himself yet fatally blinded by his love. Reconfigured to provide the most uncomfortable seating imaginable, reviewers have commented how the space at the Duke Theater cleverly resembles a cockfighting pit but for me it was aesthetically far grander – like a Roman amphitheater. Gladiators of love, these people are lucky to escape with their heads – if not their hearts – intact. Nina Raine’s Drama Desk Award-winning play Tribes is equally combative, though it’s the bonds of family that come in for a right bashing. Billy, the fantastic Russell Harvard, was born deaf into a hearing family, and raised inside the fiercely idiosyncratic and unrepentantly politically incorrect cocoon of his parents’ house. He has adapted brilliantly to the family’s unconventional ways, but they’ve never bothered to return the favor. It’s not until he meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar, equally exceptional), a young woman on the brink of deafness, that he finally understands what it means to be understood. Director David Cromer directs the intimate, in-the-round production, which has gone on to become the sleeper hit of the season. Raines covers a lot of ground, so much that clarity is often sacrificed in the face of so much sparkling badinage. Yet what makes it so compelling is the real family at its core and the divides they face. The struggle to hear and be heard proves a painful endeavor for all the characters. And ultimately some of their greatest triumphs of understanding occur, ironically enough, without resorting to language at all.

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