BWW Review: Sex, Power, and Wit in SEXUAL MISCONDUCT OF THE MIDDLE CLASSES at Tarragon Theatre
The blazer, the literary career, the looks - middle age suits him - make Professor Macklem (Matthew Edison) a charming man. He knows it, and so does Annie (Alice Snaden), one of his most promising students. After a fumbling of awkward flirting, the two begin a passionate, take-me-right-here affair which lasts the better part of a semester.
Jon, the professor, sets the story from his own perspective, and he speaks to the audience, curiously, in the third person, as in "He knew it was a cliche, but he couldn't stop thinking about the girl in the red coat." Jon is smart, and his narration is smart, keeps the action moving along so we don't stay in one scene too often, dwell too long on anything he says or does. If we did, we might notice how wrong it all feels: Annie is 19. Jon is 42. Jon is her professor.
As in the best novels by Philip Roth, playwright Hannah Moscovitch delights in convincing us that her character's predatory behaviour is a minor flaw, not that bad in context, and that he's not that much worse, really than anyone else. Annie is intelligent, independent, has some sexual experience; it's not as though Jon's screwing a child. And come on, he's only human.
It's a game of rationalisation, and there's only one way it can end. Jon and Annie break up, and Annie, in time, looks back on the affair and the marks it left on her. What she sees is not unlike what thousands of women have seen and described in their art since the dawn of the Me Too era.
SEXUAL MISCONDUCT... is very much a Me Too play, not only in its subject matter, but in its careful attention to the relationship between story, storyteller, and audience. It invites us to question who is speaking, and why, and what their witticisms and bon mots really mean. We know that Jon isn't trying to trick us, but we should be careful to respect the power of his words, and what they can do to us - especially when his is the only voice we hear.
A couple of moments in Moscovitch's latest play strongly imply that it is at least partly autobiographical. Whether or not this is true, the suggestion is enough to make you think back on that professor, director, or coach and wince a little. Canada is not always the country of gentle, genial grandfathers we make it out to be, no matter how much we want it to be. For every Stuart McLean there's a Jian Ghomeshi.
Despite its challenging subject matter, SEXUAL MISCONDUCT... is a good time. Edison and Snaden have tight chemistry, they make the stage crackle. Moscovitch gives Jon a fair number of good quips, which Edison handles with a deft charm I recognise, queasily, from a couple of my favourite professors. (The fact that I am put off by Jon's humour after the fact is testament to Edison's skill: the charm is real, and so is the skeeze. ) Under Sarah Garton Stanley's direction, Moscovitch's story moves quickly, efficiently, like a good novel. And one with a hell of an ending.
SEXUAL MISCONDUCT OF THE MIDDLE CLASSES runs through 2 February at TARRAGON THEATRE, 30 Bridgman Ave, Toronto.
For more information or to buy tickets, click here.
Photo credit: Joy von Tiedmann