Review: SEXUAL MISCONDUCT OF THE MIDDLE CLASSES

by Lynn on September 29, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Thousand Island Playhouse, Gananoque, Ont. Plays until Oct. 1.

Written by Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by Krista Jackson

Set and costumes by Michelle Bohn

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Sound by Sara Jarvie-Clark

Cast: Jonas Chernick

Romi Shraiter

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.  (Does it speak volumes about Jon, that in 2014 Jon would use the un PC word “girl” to describe a young woman of 19?)  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. She has said that she has written the play from Jon’s point of view.

 The Production. Michelle Bohn has designed the set and the costumes and they are both arresting.  At the top of a set of wide steps is a large wood desk and chair. To one side is a huge tower of books that go up to the flies. This can be either Jon’s office in a university (hence the wide stairs suggesting a large building) or the stairs to his house. There are crossing paths made of large slabs of concrete suggesting the same thing—paths on a campus or leading to his house. Inside the paths are swaths of well mowed grass (and a sign that tells us to keep off the grass).

There are three stand microphones; on either side of audience left and right and then at one of the landings of the stairs, stage left.

A young woman in a red coat stands in front of one of the microphones, tilts her head a bit and says in a lilting, almost teasing voice: “One..”, and the title of this section. This is Annie played with confidence and equal measures of coyness and flirtatiousness by Romi Shraiter. There will be eleven sections (I believe) to the play and Annie introduces each section with that tilt of the head and that voice that controls everything.

Jon (Jonas Chernick) enters, casually dressed in shirt, black pants and shoes.  He is personable, a mass of insecurities and doubts about his latest (third) marriage to fail. He is separated from his wife. She moved into the condo they bought as an income investment. 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—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. As Jon, Jonas Chernick is a mass of tics, scratchings at his cheek to suggest his awkwardness, 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.  Is this Jon preparing to write a novel about his life when the ‘girl in the red coat’ came into it?

It turns out the ‘girl in the red coat’, Annie as we know, 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. She scraped her arm and leg trying to get into a window, causing her to bleed. She came to Jon’s house for first aid. He carefully cleaned and bandaged her arm and leg, not wanting to get to close, or be suggestive. 

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. Jon is wary of younger women students and their older professors and the temptations. At one point Jon asks Annie pointedly if she was coming on to him. Flirting with him. As Annie, Romi Shraiter does not make the first move. Jon does, almost turning away and then kissing her. She returns the kiss with passion and all his other advances  

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 led 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.

Michelle Bohn’s costumes for Annie are masterful. The red coat is usually belted up. When the coat is off, Annie is dressed in a skirt (not too short) and a blouse that is buttoned up fully, or a sweater that is not seductive. By the way she dresses, Annie is almost chaste, not a woman who wants to be seductive. But her underwear is another matter. Black push-up bra and a thong. Much as one looks at Jon as the predator, it’s Annie who seems to be in control here.

Krista Jackson has directed this production with wonderful nuance and detail. She has established that the physicality between the two characters is raw, urgent and almost desperate. One is keenly aware of the work of Anita Nittoly, the intimacy director. How each character touches the other is beautifully established, but we are aware that this play is written from Jon’s point of view.

As Annie, Romi Shraiter 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 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. Romi Shraiter plays her with a subtle knowing maturity—this is no ‘innocent girl.’

The chemistry between Jonas Chernick and Romi Shraiter inhabits their characters that is so ‘real. 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? 

Director Krista Jackson has a wonderful director’s note: She says that Hannah Moscovitch’s play “…is a complex examination of need and desire within the power dynamics of an affair between a student and professor.” Look at that construction there…..’between a student and professor.’ This suggests to me that Annie is the aggressor.

Moscovitch tries to turn the last scene on its head….which I can’t talk about without giving it away. Let me just say, it’s both fascinating and troubling. The play is written from Jon’s point of view, but Annie has the last word, and it’s eye-popping.  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 nowhere. 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. I have to wonder ‘what’s the point here?’ Still, I love chewing over this. The play is fascinating.

Thousand Islands Playhouse presents:

Plays until Oct. 1, 2023.

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

Leave a Comment