Review: Mike Bartlett waves red flag with 'Bull'

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Photo -   This theater image released by 59E59 Theaters shows, from left, Eleanor Matsuura, Sam Troughton and Adam James, in a scene from Mike Bartlett’s new comedy, "Bull: The Bullfight Play," currently performing as part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters in New York. (AP Photo/59E59 Theaters, Carol Rosegg)
This theater image released by 59E59 Theaters shows, from left, Eleanor Matsuura, Sam Troughton and Adam James, in a scene from Mike Bartlett’s new comedy, "Bull: The Bullfight Play," currently performing as part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters in New York. (AP Photo/59E59 Theaters, Carol Rosegg)
Entertainment,Theater

NEW YORK (AP) — British culture encompasses a governing body whose members regularly holler insults at one another, so it seems not unreasonable for edgy British playwright Mike Bartlett to transfer that heckling behavior from Parliament to a hideous microcosm of a modern office — darkened by his particular brand of piercing, over-the-top satire.

The American premiere of "Bull: The Bullfight Play," written by Bartlett as a companion piece to last season's off-Broadway hit "Cock", opened Thursday night in a gripping, brutal presentation by Sheffield Theatres, as part of 2013 Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Bartlett applies his down-and-dirty, black-humored and trenchant approach to the concept of business employment as survival of the fittest.

While "Cock" was about power plays within a sexual triangle, "Bull" presents bizarre power plays and one-upmanship within a tense office situation wherein one of three employees is allegedly going to be fired. Thankfully brief at 55 minutes, the play is like a protracted death scene among a group of wild animals, with the strong ones — a pair of smartly-dressed, smirking thugs — mercilessly circling and taunting the weak until it's time to deliver the inevitable fatal blows.

The suspenseful interactions among the trio of business-suited workers is artfully staged by director Clare Lizzimore as an actual bullfight, minus the customary brave matador. The unevenly matched contenders verbally thrust and parry on a central, Plexiglass-walled bullring designed by Soutra Gilmour, complete with carpeting and an innocuous water cooler. Audience members stand or sit around the outside edges, some oddly smiling as the disturbingly cruel spectacle unfolds.

A slick pair of sadistic, white-collar bullies is deftly portrayed by Adam James, (smoothly vicious and smug as erstwhile team leader Tony), and Eleanor Matsuura, (enacting uber-cruel Isobel with great relish). Her eyes glistening with gleeful malice, the ever-smiling Matsuura practically licks her lips with excitement as Isobel and Tony gratuitously and relentlessly insult, badger and manipulate their hapless colleague, Thomas, into defensive and self-destructive rages.

Sam Troughton is perfect as Thomas, wearing a determined yet downtrodden and already-defeated air, enhanced by a not-quite-right suit and crooked glasses. Despised by his unpleasant colleagues because they've pegged him as a loser, foolish Thomas repeatedly falls for their tricks. As he becomes increasingly flustered and angry, it's clear that his naive belief in hard work and honesty is simply laughable to this pair.

Neil Stuke makes a brief, effective appearance as the callous boss, who seems to think like the bullies and grandiosely refers to the impending firing as "a cull to save the species from extinction."

It's no surprise who comes out on top, but Bartlett especially stretches the bounds of human cruelty beyond reason through Isobel. Although it's painful to watch such unnecessary savagery, Matsuura's joyful delivery of Isobel's cold-blooded, crushing coups-de-grace to her already-vanquished prey is a bravura performance.

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