A promising idea awaits dramatic payoff in “Handbag,” the Mark Ravenhill play that — whatever else its achievements — confirms that the author of “Shopping and Fucking” is no one-play wonder. Premiered in London by the Actors Touring Co. as part of a 12-week national tour, the unshockingly titled “Handbag” cries out for a better acted, more poignant production to make something truly momentous of its Caryl Churchill-esque conceit. As it is, the play looks unlikely to win Ravenhill any new fans even as its invention will leave a thematically ambitious writer’s acolytes eagerly anticipating his next move.
Many were put off by the latent preachiness of “Shopping and Fucking,” though it’s the new play that, for all its apparent atrocities, plays like a veiled lecture against a society’s ills. In the play’s contemporary plot, a lesbian couple produce a child via artificial insemination with the help of some gay friends, only to land the infant in the care of a feckless working-class nanny (played by Faith Flint), one of whose own dubious liaisons ultimately does the baby in.
Flash back to Victorian times and the well-heeled world of Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of Being Earnest,” whose celebrated exclamation from an astounded Lady Bracknell here gives Ravenhill his title.
Ravenhill’s revisionist portrait functions as a prequel to Wilde’s play, insofar as it provides in full the details of the story of the foundling that brings “Earnest” to its wondrous close. Revisiting Miss Prism’s defining misadventure in the earlier play, when she placed her novel in a crib and her baby in a handbag, Ravenhill sets a century-old upper-class disregard for children against a current, seemingly classwide (or perhaps classless) one. His point: that children struggle for survival despite their parents, who relegate kids to a handbag in one generation, a black plastic bag the next.
Like Churchill, whose “Cloud Nine” the new play superficially resembles, Ravenhill bridges his temporal divide. Spanning both worlds is the young rent boy Phil (Paul Rattray) — a character on his way to becoming a Ravenhill constant — whose facility for Gilbert & Sullivan in one era doesn’t preclude a fondness for heroin in another.
When first glimpsed, he’s got a bloody nose as the result of a handbag theft and is offering his services to whoever will provide him with a hot bath. But though the character is clearly trouble, he is not alone, as Ravenhill stacks up parallel incidents across the centuries, child neglect and even abuse among them.
The ideas that infuse the writing demand neatly characterized performances capable of leaping from one style and genre to the next with the flick of a costume change. But acting on a scratched mirror set by Gideon Davey not that far removed from the bleakly chic downmarket environment of “Shopping and Fucking,” the six-person company are game enough without being especially compelling.
Some can’t do the period comedy demanded by Wilde, however imperfect the pastiche, while others —Flint particularly — so exaggerate their emotions that they shut the audience out. In the end, the hysteria of the modern sequences would seem to be commenting on Wilde’s own defining and epigrammatic cool. But for all the raised voices here available, there’s more feeling behind Wilde’s carefully worked-out facade than in all the double entendres in “Handbag.” For now, the play needs a properly disturbing staging to tell us if it constitutes more than so much imaginative loose change.