Kelli Simpkins, Mike Tepeli, and Patrese D. McClain Credit: Michael Courier

Men. You can’t live with ’em, and you’ll want to stay out of range of ’em, too.

That’s pretty much the concept behind Cocked, Sarah Gubbins‘s provocative but overly schematized new play, getting its world premiere now at Victory Gardens Theater.

The title refers both to the act of preparing to fire a pistol and to the male appendage most closely identified with testosterone production. The two come together, as it were, in an unlikely place: the Andersonville condo belonging to Izzie and Taylor, an affluent lesbian couple. Izzie is a black TV reporter and the more traditionally feminine of the two, not only in terms of dress but also with regard to her preference for conciliation—even surrender—over combat. Taylor, by contrast, is a white lawyer who dresses in man-tailored suits and isn’t above brawling to win an argument.>

The pair have their problems. Taylor has confessed to a sexual indiscretion, shaking Izzie’s trust in their relationship. More fundamentally, Izzie feels that her partner has no idea how to listen.

And then there’s Ron, the neighbor from hell—an angry ex-marine with a dog that won’t shut up, a mailbox full of gun-and-ammo catalogs, and a penchant for playing Call of Duty REAL LOUD. Izzie finds him so intimidating that she wants to sell the condo and move. Unwilling to take a loss, however, Taylor tries to minimize Ron’s baleful influence over their lives.

Into this stew walks Taylor’s ne’er-do-well brother, Frank. Actually, he sneaks into it, nearly earning himself a kitchen knife in the chest when Taylor mistakes him for an intruder. Which is really what he is.

A classic of his type, Frank is a small-time criminal who’s been sleeping in mom’s basement while getting fired from menial job after menial job. AutoZone let him go most recently, over the disappearance of some brake pads. None of this has kept Frank from maintaining perfect confidence in his opinions and skills. When he isn’t spouting off about the coming social collapse, he styles himself an all-purpose handyman and demonstrates his expertise by taking on various household remodeling jobs, unbidden.

Frank offers Gubbins and director Joanie Schultz some great opportunities for farce, as his DIY projects get progressively bigger and more reckless. But Gubbins also makes him the linchpin of the very serious point she’s making about male aggression and its culturally determined means of expression. And that’s where things get dicey.
As one of the swinging dicks of Cocked, Frank is convinced that nothing short of all-out war will solve Izzie and Taylor’s Ron problem, so he sets about starting one. His first move? Selling Izzie a gun.

Which isn’t believable. Granted, Gubbins makes a concerted and careful effort to moot all objections. Frank is depicted as irresistibly, not to say deviously tenacious once he’s become fixated on an idea. Taylor, for all her masculine-role-appropriating swagger, is pretty much useless in any practical sense. And Izzie herself feels defenseless—partly because she’s accepted the mythology of female defenselessness, and partly because she supposes that her black skin would make her look like the perp rather than the victim if she were to call the police.

But, as I’ve already mentioned, Izzie is a TV reporter. And not the kind that sits behind a desk, either, but one who’s wearied herself reporting Chicago’s everyday violence. It strains credulity to suggest that she’s utterly without resources in her struggle with a fellow condo owner. That she doesn’t have one cop, one alderman, one city lawyer she can call when she needs to put a scare into Ron and protect her home. It seems that, in her zeal to make a programmatic point about the dangers of conventional gender roles, Gubbins has deprived Izzie of feasible alternatives. She’s been disarmed, in short, just so Frank can arm her.

That pivotal contrivance compromises Cocked when it starts to turn dark, but until then the show is lots of fun. A cross between Ellen DeGeneres and the sitcom-era Dick Van Dyke, Kelli Simpkins makes a fine, exasperating Taylor. Mike Tepeli’s Frank is appropriately ambivalence free. But the shortcomings of the script fall most heavily on Patrese D. McClain, who comes off as precisely half of a plausible Izzie.  v