"We're just going around in circles," a character accurately observes in British playwright Mike Bartlett's "Cockfight Play," having its L.A. premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre. (The actual title, unprintable here, is two syllables shorter.)
Basically all the characters do in this entertaining, irresolute drama about a man torn between two lovers and two corresponding sexual identities is go around in circles — literally and figuratively.
Stephen Gifford's set, a bright-green arena without furniture or props, is based on a cockfighting ring, and Cameron Watson directs the action in keeping with this metaphor: In a series of tense face-offs, lovers rotate, eyes locked, and attack with words instead of beaks.
John (Patrick Stafford) breaks up with a man, called M in the program (Matthew Elkins), then falls for a woman, W (Rebecca Mozo). But, confused, John flees back to M, confessing, "I need a bit of straightening out." The snarky M quips, "I think you've already..." But he suggests having W over to dinner, so that John can tell her that he's really gay.
W, meanwhile, expects John to leave M for a blissful hetero future with her. John misleads each lover, it is implied, not because he's a cad but because he's bewildered. Both he and the play blame society, which railroads people into inflexible sexual categories. (Apparently nobody onstage has heard of the Kinsey scale.) M's father, F (Gregory Itzin), a surprise fourth guest at the dinner, tells John sternly, "You need to work out what you are."
The cockfight-inspired staging, effective at first, soon becomes a burden, leading to distracting gaps between dialogue and action, as when John asks M to kiss him and then, after not being kissed, says, "Thank you." Or when, at the dinner, the characters keep inviting one another to sit down but remain standing, circling the invisible table. (Because, I guess, gamecocks don't kiss or sit down?)
The dialogue is often witty, and the strong, likable performers (their persuasive accents coached by Nike Doukas) transcend the occasional awkward moments.
But those moments hint at a deeper problem: Cockfighting may not be the best analogy for self-pitying lovers' negotiations. The most sexually confused Englishman today has more freedom of choice than animals forced to fight to the death for sport.
It's hard to feel sorry for John — there's really no bad choice, and if neither lover appeals, there's always the rest of Great Britain — so the play's attempts to manipulate us become a little trying.