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Alice Snaden and Matthew Edison star in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes.

Joy von Tiedemann

  • Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes
  • Written by Hannah Moscovitch
  • Genre Comedy
  • Director Sarah Garton Stanley
  • Actors Matthew Edison and Alice Snaden
  • Company and Venue Tarragon Theatre
  • City Toronto

rating

3 out of 4 stars

The #MeToo movement has cast a wide net. Its catch includes some scary big fish, among the scariest being movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose rape trial got under way in New York this week, even as further sex-crime charges against him were unveiled in L.A.

But there have also been small fry whose sexual misconduct, while still deplorable, is by no means as dirty and devious. You might even be tempted, like playwright Hannah Moscovitch, simply to scrutinize them and then throw them back.

That’s what she does with Jon, the antihero of her clever new comedy-drama Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. He’s fictional, but he sure sounds familiar – a star professor and successful author who embarks on a secret affair with a female undergrad. He’s 42. She’s 19.

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Hannah Moscovitch takes control of the male perspective in her post-#MeToo play Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

Jon, played with wry self-disgust by Matthew Edison in the Tarragon Theatre’s premiere production, is all too aware that he’s a walking stereotype. As he tells it, he succumbed to desire against his best instincts. When we meet him, he’s an agitated mess. His third marriage has failed, he’s staring down a midlife crisis and now, for some unfathomable reason, he finds himself distracted by one of his students, a girl in a red coat.

She’s Annie (Alice Snaden) – shy, awkward and a huge fan of his novels. She lives just down the street from his house. One day, after she accidentally gets locked out of her place and injures herself trying to climb through a window, he reluctantly invites her in to tend her wounds.

After that, it’s a few short steps from discussing Shakespeare to kissing passionately to having sex on his living-room floor. Before long, they’ve descended to that sordid cliché, the tryst in a hotel room. When Annie finally works up the nerve to ask Jon to read one of her own literary efforts, he cringes, then reluctantly agrees – only to discover that she’s genuinely talented. But his gesture toward mentorship is tainted by their sexual relations.

Moscovitch's play is interested in what leads middle-aged prof Jon to engage in an affair with a 19-year-old student.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Moscovitch has Jon narrate the story from his perspective, in what turns out to be an exercise in empathy. Without divulging her poignant denouement, we can see she’s interested in exploring how this seemingly insightful man could make such a gross error in judgment. In fact, his own lack of empathy is one of his problems. His acute self-awareness is contrasted with an inability to see beyond himself. He may describe the pimply, lust-sodden teenage students on his campus like an amused anthropologist, but it’s clear he doesn’t remember an adolescent’s emotional vulnerability.

Annie, meanwhile, begins by being just the kind of pretty cipher than Jon accuses his middle-aged male colleagues of creating in their pathetic attempts to write about young women. But as this 80-minute play progresses, her few halting sentences grow increasingly revelatory, and we begin to see what Jon, in his simplistic conception of her, is missing. It coalesces in one heart-piercing line of Annie’s, spoken to Jon a few years after their affair has ended: “I wanted you to like me.”

Edison’s handsome, bearded Jon has the swagger of a rock-star prof, but also the perpetually pained look of a man whose celebrity isn’t compensation for the normalcy he craves. Jon’s wish to embrace a stable, middle-class life, rather than emulate bed-hopping literary heroes like Hemingway and Kerouac, is one of his more endearing qualities. Snaden gives Annie a big-eyed, coltish charm, to which she applies increasing layers of complexity with every scene.

Sarah Garton Stanley, who staged Moscovitch’s similarly sex-themed Bunny, once again directs with humour and sensitivity on an expressionistic set by Michael Gianfrancesco that, lit by Bonnie Beecher, becomes as radiantly red as Annie’s signature coat.

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Moscovitch ends the play with a sad but satisfying coda, many years after the affair. By then, we’ve seen what both Annie and Jon have lost by his misconduct. If he’d behaved like a responsible adult instead of a lust-blinded teenager and given her what she really needed from him – guidance – theirs might have been a rewarding relationship.

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes continues to Feb. 2.

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