In the Ring, With a Decision to Make

In “The Cockfight Play,” a young man gets too much help trying to sort out his sexual identity

Joan Marcus

A play with no set or props, and actors who wear only street clothes, is spurring a conversation about the nebulous space between "gay" and "straight," a subject that’s been known to confound otherwise well-adjusted urbanites, who sometimes prefer their sexual identities more cut and dried.

The basic setup of “The Cockfight Play” (a wholesome rewrite of the play’s actual title) is this: John and his boyfriend, named only “M,” decide to take a break. That’s when John meets “W,” a woman, and entanglements ensue. The tense comedy by playwright Mike Bartlett is on the boards at the Duke on 42nd Street, where a 200-seat, unpainted wooden amphitheater has been constructed in what is normally an open theatrical rehearsal space.

“The Cockfight Play” includes one of the more intimate sex scenes offered off-Broadway, where John and “W” circle each other with alternating affection, hostility and timidity, not unlike a couple of cocks thrown into a ring ... which is exactly the point. Here, in this round, makeshift space, there are no places to hide.

Don’t alert Standards & Practices: all the action throughout “The Cockfight Play” is conveyed through verbal, rather than physical means. That’s one thing to depict when the subject is “Please pass the bottle of wine,” notes director James Macdonald (MTC’s “Top Girls”). It’s entirely another when you’re attempting to conjure the awkward physical intimacy of a man’s first tryst with a woman, without anyone literally undressing. NBC 4 New York interviewed Macdonald by phone from London, where he was beginning rehearsals for a new play at the Royal Court Theatre, the same venue where the Olivier-winning “Cockfight Play” first premiered in 2009.

NBC4NY: The theater that’s been built for “The Cockfight Play” is central to how audiences experience the performance. Can you speak to that a bit?

MACDONALD: Mike wrote this play sitting in a cafe in Mexico City and thinking about bullfights and cockfights, and he just meant to write something about the combat between these actors, their emotional fight ... When we started working on the design of it, we looked in sports arenas to see what the best shape would be to deliver this particular fight. We looked at cockfights. We looked at sumo wrestling. And it turned out pretty quickly that our favorite was a round arena, because it seemed to do something more gladiatorial. The nice thing about cockfights is that the audience is banked up pretty steeply around the event, and you’re looking at these little creatures. 

NBC4NY: You’ve staged the play’s most intimate scene with two actors standing up, fully clothed. They start out far apart, physically, speaking their dialogue, and then just circle, coiling into one another in almost-imperceptible steps. Tricky?

MACDONALD: It was a lot less tricky than if you had to stage it realistically, the result of which would be you’re led away in chains. (Laughs.) It was in many ways a blessed relief to be able to do a sex scene without having to do all the kind of fakery that normally goes into those things. You get to that point where you realize this will be far sexier and leave more to the imagination if you don’t do that. 

NBC4NY: Understood. But, how do you choreograph that?

MACDONALD: Once you’ve decided (the actors) are not going to take off their clothes, the question becomes: what do you do physically? You can’t just sit there and say the words. It felt in the end like the simple action of circling gave you a kind of tension that allowed the audience access to both the actor’s faces, and we gradually figured out they also needed to get closer together. There’s no choreography to it, and they wind up in a sightly different place every time they do it. 

NBC4NY: You directed the play in London a couple of years back. So it seems fair to ask if American audiences respond differently to a conversation about bisexuality than the British. 

MACDONALD: It seems to me sexual politics in New York may be somewhat more entrenched than in London, and that means there are some more difficult things for an audience in New York to take on. But that’s a good thing. Gay couples may feel threatened by it, and so will straight couples. That’s the grenade Mike is lobbing into the debate. 

NBC4NY: With the unusual seating arrangement, it’s easy to monitor the reactions of other theatergoers. You’re often looking right at them. How central is that to the experience? 

MACDONALD: When we looked at sporting arenas, that was always part of what was going on, and it felt like it would play to the debate in the story. You’re rooting for “your team,” but you can see the people who are rooting for the “other” team. It just felt like another way to make the fight more extreme, and for the audience to have to process what they were thinking and, to some extent, take sides.

NBC4NY: Oh, so we’re supposed to be rooting for someone?

MACDONALD: Well, I say that slightly playfully.

NBC4NY: Explain the horn-like noise you use to indicate that scenes are changing.

MACDONALD: We liked the thing that happens with the energy in sporting fights, the end of a bout or a round. The combatants relax for a moment. We just liked the change in energy.

NBC4NY: You’ve got a great group of young American actors. What were you looking for in the casting?

MACDONALD: You’re looking for people who can do the wit of it, first and foremost. They’ve got to talk fast and be clever and self-aware. That’s the starting point.

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