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From left: Andrew Kushnir, Jeff Miller and Jessica Greenberg.

Kari North

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Mike Bartlett
Directed by
Joel Greenberg
Ian D. Clark, Jessica Greenberg, Andrew Kushnir, Jeff Miller
Studio 180
Theatre Centre
Runs Until
Sunday, April 27, 2014

"There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person," the late Gore Vidal famously asserted. "Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices." Just such a murky stew of sexual urges seems to be the subject of the provocatively titled Cock, British playwright Mike Bartlett's thorny comedy about a gay/straight love triangle, getting a smashing Canadian debut by Studio 180 at Toronto's Theatre Centre.

I say "seems" because, once the dust has cleared in this no-holds-barred emotional brawl, you come to realize that Cock isn't really about sexual identity. What Bartlett is writing about is the inability to choose or to settle for one kind of happiness. Or, as he suggests when a cheesecake is brought onstage late in the play, it may simply be about wanting to have your cake and eat it, too.

The guy who'd like to have it both ways is John (Andrew Kushnir), one of those boyish, stammering Englishmen in the Hugh Grant vein whose habitual dithering is part of his charm. That is, until his lack of certainty threatens to tear apart his seven-year relationship with M (Jeff Miller).

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After one of his spats with his prickly partner, John meets W (Jessica Greenberg), and the two are instantly attracted to each other. This despite the fact that John has always identified as gay. Or as he puts it, in the past he's thought of women as being "like water … when you want beer." But John finds this particular woman intoxicating and he lets her introduce him to the pleasures of heterosexual sex – in a funny, tender erotic scene in which the actors never actually touch, let alone remove their clothes.

Then John reconciles with M, while continuing to see and make future plans with W. Finally, his two lovers try to force him to choose between them during an ugly dinner party, with M bringing in his widowed dad (a superb Ian D. Clark) as backup.

Cock has become an international hit since premiering at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2009. Part of its appeal may be that it deals in the complexities of sexuality at a time when "bi-curious" has become a buzzword, although Bartlett is hardly breaking fresh ground. Brad Fraser was writing about gay/straight triangles 20 years ago in Poor Super Man, and even further back, John Schlesinger's 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday had Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson contending for the affections of a young stud.

Bartlett's play is really more fascinating as a character study. The feckless John suffers from indecision so acute that it leaves him in a state of emotional paralysis. Yet, while we appreciate his lovers' exasperation, we also sympathize with this young man's desire not to be bound by definitions of who or what he's supposed to be.

Studio 180 – launching its tenure as the in-house company at the Theatre Centre's new Queen Street West facility – gives the play a thrillingly intense treatment. And, as usual, director Joel Greenberg has gathered a strong cast. Kushnir's John, with his curly locks and sad eyes, is like a bad but lovable puppy. As the pressures mount on him, however, he grows into an agonized and pathetic figure. (The actor's only fault is a somewhat tenuous English accent.) The heartbroken M has many of the best and bitchiest lines, and Miller delivers them with an aggrieved astringency. Greenberg's W is admirably forthright, while Clark as the father is an unsettling mix of paternal devotion and casual viciousness.

Bartlett, one of Britain's rising-star playwrights, is a colourful and frequently hilarious writer, though he can also be a touch too clever. Cock is framed like a fighting match, a silly conceit in which the actors enter rolling up their shirt sleeves and a ringing bell separates the "rounds." James Macdonald's original Royal Court production – recreated Off-Broadway – was presented in a tiered circle, suggesting gladiatorial combat; Studio 180 has opted for a boxing motif. Set designer John Thompson turns the Theatre Centre's shiny new black-box venue into an arena, with a green square in the middle serving as a canvas – although the ropes, like much else in this minimal staging, are left to our imaginations. And by the end of this brutal Cockfight Play – to use its alternative name – you may swear that you can see blood on the ground.

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