Review: Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

by Lynn on January 9, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer



l-r Alice Snaden, Matthew Edison
photo: Joy von Tiedemann


At the Tarragon Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

Set and costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Video Design by Laura Warren

Cast: Matthew Edison

Alice Snaden

Hannah Moscovitch focuses on sex and power in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes but with her usual ability to turn matters on its ear when we least expect it.

 The Story. It’s 2014.  Jon is an author and a university professor. He’s 42, cynical about the world perhaps because he’s separated from his third wife and despondent because yet another relationship has failed. But then he sees Annie whom he describes as “a girl in a red coat.” Annie is 19 years old and in one of Jon’s undergraduate English courses.  (Even in 2014 Jon would be pilloried for using the un PC word “girl” to describe a young woman of 19, but I digress).  Her apartment is down the street from Jon’s house. He sees her often either by coincidence or design. They have a sexual relationship until he breaks it off. It looks like a typical story of older man in a powerful position and an adoring younger woman. But this is Hannah Moscovitch writing and nothing is typical.

 The Production. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco has created a striking set of red paneled doors on either side of the stage, positioned in perspective going upstage. Perhaps this is symbolic of from whose perspective is the play being seen?

A young woman in a red coat flits from one door upstage and crosses to another door and  through it downstage, then again back in the other direction and through another door, seemingly randomly. Bonnie Beecher’s light streams through the opening and closing doors. The “look” of this movement, light and set is arresting.

As quickly as the young woman appears that is as quickly she disappears and Jon (Matthew Edison) appears sitting at his classroom desk downstage left. He is trimly bearded, casually but smartly dressed in a dark blazer, black jersey, black jeans and athletic shoes. He flips his laptop shut. When Jon is alone, musing, he talks to the audience in the third person. The play is told from his point of view, through his voice. He talks about his naïve students who sometimes don’t get his jokes; his clear observations of life around him, his failed third marriage—he is separated from his wife who is living in their condo meant to be rented out—his unfinished novel referred to as his ‘lumberjack novel’ and a ‘girl in a red coat’ he saw in his dreams? his imagination? and by whom he is captivated.

In these solitary scenes, Matthew Edison as Jon is a mass of facial expressions, pauses and nuance. It’s a masterful performance of a man unhappy with himself and his life, but strangely confident because of his position.

Jon’s ‘dialogue’ here is meticulous, literary, often esoteric and erudite. It is less like ‘speech’ and more like commentary and discourse one finds in a novel, but not, I assume,  the ‘lumberjack novel.’ Is this Jon preparing to write a novel about his life when the ‘girl in the red coat’ came into it? Hannah Moscovitch had me wondering about that.

It turns out the ‘girl in the red coat’ is named Annie (Alice Snaden) and she is in Jon’s undergrad course, lives down the street from his house, is a huge fan of his work and seems to be as captivated by Jon as he is by her. She keeps turning up at his house and his office, the first time when she seems to have locked herself out of her apartment. (I guess it was easier to go to Jon’s house than to call her landlord to come with the key.)  Jon in turn sits on his porch so that he looks in her window as he drinks his coffee. He learns that she is a top student and an excellent writer.

It’s a short hop, skip and jump before Annie and Jon are in each other’s arms, in his bed and then hotel rooms. He tells her this is wrong, just before they clinch again. We are lead to believe that common sense is overcome by lust and desire—the age difference is mentioned a few times, as is the fact that he is her professor.

When Jon and Annie converse Matthew Edison is straightforward, sometimes halting, awkward, insecure and unsettled. Edison layers Jon with a lot of charm which would be beguiling. Annie seems almost underwritten, I say “almost” because this is Hannah Moscovitch writing here and one must be aware of clever tricks.

As Annie, Alice Snaden is quiet, shy, watchful and just ‘there’, at Jon’s door to his house or office. She is not so much bewitched by this man, as much as she is determined to have him. She doesn’t say much, but she is keenly aware of her effect over him—she knows that he sits on his porch so he can look in her window. Moscovitch does not write Annie as a simpering school girl with dreams of entering Jon’s life for longer than the affair. Snaden plays her with a subtle knowing maturity—this is no ‘innocent girl.’

Director Sarah Garton Stanley uses the Tarragon Theatre space to great effect, having Annie appear through a side door that opens from outside as if by magic, or in the middle of the theatre as she looks across the space directly at him, or just there, on stage. That young woman is never far away from him. The entrances and exists are fluid and efficient. Occasionally writing above the stage are projected lines of information to expand a thought. The appearance of the word ‘mentorship’ is particularly clever (kudos to Laura Warren for the video design) and the detail-minded Sarah Garton Stanley.

The chemistry between Matthew Edison and Alice Snaden inhabits their characters and that’s dandy. There’s a breathlessness with Jon and fearless physicality with Annie.

Comment. Ok, older, successful professor has an affair with a younger, ‘impressionable’ student. We’ve seen this before, often. The play is about power, but Hannah Moscovitch has us wondering whose power is it?  The press release says: “Hannah Moscovitch takes an archetypal scenario, the ‘student-teacher romance’, and turns it on its head, re-envisioning it for our post #MeToo era.” But the play starts before the “#MeToo” era. It starts in 2014 (Ok Ok, Google says that the phrase was coined in 2006, but it didn’t become a ‘thing’ until 2017 when several women brought Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour into the light).

Moscovitch tries to turn #MeToo on its head in the last scene, which I can’t talk about without giving it away. Let me just say, it doesn’t quite work. Annie introduces something into the narrative that comes from nowhere and has not been established enough.  Her last speech also solidifies Annie’s power, but it’s done in a way that is so quick and brutal, it seems to come from no where. So while Jon looks confused at the end by what has happened to him, the scene is so quick and subtle, it’s not really earned.

It’s fascinating that Hannah Moscovitch has created a play about post #MeToo from the point of view of the man. But this is a frail man, successful notwithstanding. There have been other plays written in which a frail man is brought down by a supposedly ‘naïve’ woman. I have to wonder, what is the point here?

Produced by Tarragon Theatre.

Opened: Jan. 8, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 9, 2020. It’s been extended!!

Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission.

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