It’s not merely because it encompasses labia piercings, butt plugs and gay orgies — well, we got all that out of the way up front! — that some will find “Mother Clap’s Molly House” indecent. Less delicate audience members may find themselves noticing instead how indecently enjoyable Mark Ravenhill’s latest play mostly is. Already the subject of a minor Tory Party-led controversy — should the state-funded Royal National Theater be giving itself over to such escapades? — “Mother Clap” marks a major feather in the new-writing cap of Trevor Nunn’s beleaguered (on the new-play front, particularly) tenure, especially since director Nicholas Hytner has given the work one of those all-stops-out stagings possible, it seems, only at the National. A severe 11th-hour falling-off notwithstanding, there’s something richly moving about witnessing the aesthetic coming-of-age of “Shopping and Fucking” scribe Ravenhill, whose new play evinces less interest in shock value per se than in showing an unexpected tenderness toward characters who are themselves struggling toward love.
That Ravenhill has folded his inquiry into a play juxtaposing past and present, Baroque masques (a winged Eros included) and disco-dancing divas, suggests “Mother Clap” as the nearest the British theater has come to the affective and formal reach of, say, “Angels in America.” And, like Tony Kushner’s epic, “Mother Clap” in formal terms owes most to Caryl Churchill, though not even “Serious Money” — the Churchill play that incorporates music in much the way Ravenhill’s uses Matthew Scott’s original score — was such serious fun. (Elsewhere, there’s a sly reference to Churchill’s “Top Girls,” whose structure is echoed here.)
The first act, indeed, constitutes such a sustained act of bravura that I’m not sure I can ever quite remember an audience heading out for the intermission on such a high. In a vividly Hogarthian 18th-century London, Mrs. Tull (Deborah Findlay) is tending a clothes shop when her husband falls dead to the floor and his widow’s cheerfully unknowing homophobia is put to the test. Amid a newly entrepreneurial London, Mrs. Tull’s best chances for commercial success lie in trading with the enemy — Ravenhill gets ready mileage out of the punning sense in Britain of “trade” as prostitution — and before she can say buggery, her establishment has become a “molly house”: a gay meeting place-turned-brothel of sorts where London’s working-class men can meet and mate and dress up in women’s clothing. The capital, by all accounts, had 40 of them between 1700 and 1730.
Sexual identity and gender are two of Ravenhill’s concerns; capitalism is a third, as is to be expected from the author whose best-known play elided lucre and lust in one notorious title. Business “judges no one,” we are told, within a rapacious sexual landscape where censure is always implicit. And before long, Mrs. Tull — the self-appointed Mother Clap (in real life, there was a Margaret Clap, who, the excellent program tells us, was tried in 1726 “for keeping a Sodomitical house”) — is living fat off the backs of boys and men yearning sexually to be free.
Complications arise, in turn, with the ache that always accompanies desire: “I hurt all the time; is that love?” asks Martin, Mrs. Tull’s young apprentice, whom Paul Ready plays — beautifully — as the Tobias equivalent to Findlay’s spry and incipiently wise Mrs. Lovett-like Mother Clap. In his “molly,” or feminine, guise, Martin has fallen for Thomas (Dominic Cooper), only to discover that the games boys play, whatever their garb, have the capacity to wound.
The 18th-century material is so richly self-contained that some may resent Ravenhill’s desire in act two to bring in the present, which finds the same cast playing participants at a drug-fueled all-male London sex party that ends as joylessly as the first act concludes on a delirious note of mock-Handelian triumph. (On the other hand, you’ve got to love a remark like, “Phil, quick, there’s rimming,” as delivered by a poshly spoken, HIV-positive video cameraman, dressed only in a leather harness: Iain Mitchell is priceless in the part.) Nearly 300 years ago, the play seems to argue, gay men got punch-drunk on the possibilities of liberation; take the same community out of the closet in the 21st century, and all that’s liberated is despair.
The result is a creeping didacticism, some of which (“Nothing means anything, does it?”) sounds strictly pro forma, while the final sequence, bleeding the play’s two periods together, blurs Ravenhill’s point.
The closing stretch plays like an outtake from the Pet Shop Boys musical “Closer to Heaven,” to which “Mother Clap” can otherwise be read as a highly sophisticated riposte. It’s also worth pointing out that the play welcomes heterosexual affection in its embrace: Mrs. Tull is pursued by the cross-dressing Princess Seraphina (Ian Redford), a self-described “character” who also happens to be a straight transvestite.
As lit by Rick Fisher, Giles Cadle’s dark and angled set may not be the most visually seductive of landscapes, though it doubles aptly as a fabric-draped tavern-cum-whorehouse and an austere London loft. But seduction is only part of the story that Ravenhill and his remarkable cast — Cooper and Ready are both newcomers to watch — want to tell in the gay movement’s long march backward from societal marginalization to center-stage ennui. And yet, “Mother Clap” maintains, even when things look terrible, there exists time and room for tenderness.
“If you’re working down here,” says the incipient rent boy Martin to a particularly aggressive client, “I want to feel it up here.” Which is an oblique way of saying that for all its ostensible sensationalism, “Mother Clap’s Molly House” strikes home by anatomizing that terrain that stands outside history — namely the human heart.