Stage Door Review

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

Friday, January 10, 2020

✭✭

by Hannah Moscovitch, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

January 8-February 2, 2020

Jon: “Do you know you’re coming on to me?”

Hannah Moscovitch’s latest play, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, now receiving its world premiere at the Tarragon Theatre, has a textbook-like title that may lead some to think it similar to Moscovitch’s What a Young Wife Ought to Know of 2014. This would be an incorrect assumption. Whereas as Young Wife treated a serious subject seriously and had a conclusion that grew out of the events presented, Sexual Misconduct is an extended one-topic joke with a trick ending. Other than serving as a showcase for the fine acting of its two principals, Sexual Misconduct feels like a cheat since Moscovitch has deceived the audience for the sake of a single surprise effect. It’s “a long run for a short slide”, as my companion commented immediately after.

Sexual Misconduct concerns the now-over-dramatized topic of a teacher’s relationship with a student. David Mamet’s Oleanna (1992) set off this trend followed by such Canadian entries as Rose Napoli’s Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) (2017). Moscovitch, clearly aware she is working on well-trodden ground, decides to turn our expectations on their head.

Despite the play’s portenous title, Moscovitch does not examine a cross-section of the middles classes, but looks only at one very specific example. She gives us Jon (Matthew Edison) a famous author of fiction and professor of English, whose third wife has recently decided to live on her own. After he explains to us in detail why sex with 19-year-old girls is unfulfilling, he sees Annie (Alice Snaden), a first-year university student in his class who lives near him, who seems deliberately trying to attract his attention. As an ardent fan of his writing, Annie’s goal, inarticulate as she is, is to get as close to her idol as possible – first into his house, then into his bed.

As per new rules of consent, Jon makes Annie aware every step of the way of what she is doing and and asks if that is what she intends, “Do you know you’re coming on to me?” Being only a weak man, Jon inevitably gives in to to Annie’s clearly stated desire for intimacy. Thus, Moscovitch turns Annie into an anti-Oleanna who pursues her professor and does not wish to report his misconduct. Each step where Annie acts in contradiction to politically correct ideals is meant to be funny, but funnier still are Jon’s long monologues, curiously speaking of himself in the third person, about his weakness and lack of knowledge on how to handle Annie’s directness and desire.

The novelty of Moscovitch’s reversal of the predatory older male theme wears off rather quickly. After all, it is as if Moscovitch has devoted a whole play to the Sorrel-Professor affair from her Bunny of 2018 only with the professor figure rather than the attractive young woman as the narrator.

Moscovitch follows the action in Sexual Misconduct after the breakup of Jon and Annie’s relationship to a period “many years later” when Annie herself has become a prominent writer. Moscovitch concludes the play with an ending meant to surprise the audience and cause it to re-evaluate all that has come before. We might be inclined to do this if we had found either Jon or Annie unusual or engaging, but since we have not the ending comes off as a would-be display of cleverness for its own sake. The problem is that like Moscovitch’s plot, the surprise of her ending is not even original. The 1982 film version of the 1978 play Deathtrap ends the same way.

While Sexual Misconduct may be remarkably insubstantial considering Moscovitch’s other work, it does provide an excellent showcase for its two actors. Matthew Edison has long been an expert at the comedy of ineptitude and embarrassment so the role of the nonplussed writer Jon is a perfect fit for him. Now that he is older, Jon’s satire of love, marriage and younger people is where Edison has the chance to display his mastery of dry wit and comic delivery. It’s a pity that Moscovitch has Jon speak all his monologues in the third person, a distancing device that makes no sense even after her surprise ending.

Newcomer Alice Snaden is making her debut at the Tarragon as Annie. She artfully combines Annie’s seemingly contradictory qualities of innocence and desire. Given the effect of Moscovitch’s surprise ending, Snaden should also somehow convey a sense of calculation, but that would, of course, give Moscovitch’s surprise away. Snaden does show Annie gradually, luminously grow in confidence throughout the years, but Moscovitch curiously allows Annie to remain as much an enigma by the end of the play as she was at the start.

The normally insightful Michael Gianfrancesco has created a set that is attractive on its own but largely irrelevant to the action. He has created a foreshortened corridor, four doors on each side, with one at the back that looks like a parody of a set for a French farce. Ken MacDonald created exactly the same kind of set, though in a different colour, for the Shaw Festival’s production of the French farce Hotel Peccadillo in 2007. Since Moscovitch’s play is not a farce and since director Sarah Garton Stanley has to struggle to find uses for all the doors when two or three are all the play needs, one wonders why this particular set was chosen.

A play about the interaction of only two people does not need a video designer, but Stanley has Laura Warren create location titles and sometimes comments that appear on the proscenium. Later on, bored with that, Warren decides to have her titles blow up to fill the open space or slide down onto the walls for no apparent reason.

Bunny was Moscovitch’s gender-reversed Anatol at the Tarragon in 2018. Now she gives us a expectation-reversed Oleanna in 2019. Let’s hope she gets back to creating the serious original work that first made her well-known rather than these superficial riffs on pre-existing, more complex plays.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Alice Snaden as Annie and Matthew Edison as Jon. © 2020 Joy von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.tarragontheatre.com.