Through Nov. 30
2020 Shannon Pl S.E.
“In-yer-face theatre” is the name for the raw, no-holds-barred dramatic movement that emerged in 1990s Britain.
Out English playwright Mark Ravenhill is one of the school’s foremost members, and his black comedy “Handbag,” currently making its D.C. area premiere at Scena, is a prime example of the genre.
In “Handbag,” two gay couples are having a baby. Maternal Mauretta (Anne Nottage), the birth mother, and her humorless partner Suzanne (Amanda Forstrom), are slated to serve as the baby’s custodial parents. But sensitive Tom (Edward C. Nagel) and his puerile partner David (Gray West) will be in the child’s life too as his two daddies. Seems like a perfect plan — a surplus of love and support.
But as the day of delivery draws nearer, things become less rosy. David announces that he’d like the quartet’s issue to call him Uncle David rather than daddy. Additionally, both David and Suzanne’s eyes begin to rove. In fact, when Mauretta goes into labor, Suzanne is nuzzling Lorraine (Haely Jardas), a confused, undereducated young woman she’s filming for her focus group, and David is having sex with Phil (Bob Sheire), a heroin-addicted rent boy.
Set in London, the action shifts back and forth from the late 1990s to the 1860s. The more modern England feels familiar and reality based, but for the earlier years, Ravenhill serves up a wild prequel to Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” from which the playwright drew his title. In Wilde’s comic masterpiece, nanny and wannabe novelist Miss Prism mistakenly loses her young charge, accidentally leaving him in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station.
Ravenhill’s Victorian vignettes — here played broadly with lots of eye rolling and screeching — convey a world of manners where a baby isn’t particularly valued. Wilde’s Constance (Forstrom again) is portrayed as distinctly not maternal. And here Cardew is played by Nagel as a mincing do-gooder who heads up a home for wayward boys whom he likes to bathe. And it’s Phil, the rent boy in search of family and love whose world collides with the past. After shooting up a bag of heroin, he floats into Victorian London where he gladly accepts the salutary ministrations from a besotted Cardew, at least for a while.
Director Robert McNamara doesn’t shy away from “Handbag’s” over-the-top humor or harsher “in-yer-face” moments. He goes after them wholeheartedly. And while the cast of five do double duty in both centuries, they fare better with the more contemporary storyline. Sheire is a standout as the damaged Phil. He nails his role. Similarly Jardas nicely captures the vulnerability and anger of Lorraine. Scenes involving either misdirected youth are the play’s most compelling.
Daniel Pinha’s set is simple but effective: In the center Playhouse’s intimate black box space a chandelier hangs over a large red circle. Sound designer Denise R. Rose cleverly blasts the din of a crowd to create a busy railway station.
“Handbag” entertainingly and sometimes jarringly explores the timeless search for love, acceptance and meaning in what’s often an unwelcoming world.