‘Legal but complicated’: Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, at Theatre Network

John Ullyatt and Gianna Vacirca in Sexual Misconduct Of The Middle Classes, Theatre Network. Photo by Eric Kozakiewica Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“You cannot shoot vampires during the day,” says Hannah Moscovitch, from a car across the world in Prague at 5 in the afternoon.

The star Canadian playwright is driving past beautiful old buildings and cherry trees in blossom. She’s en route to her nocturnal working day — in the pressurized world of television. Heading to the set where season 2 of Interview With The Vampire is in its third week of shooting. Last season, part of it spent in L.A.,  she was in the story room of the AMC series adapted from the hot Anne Rice novel, “working on scripts, pitching ideas.” This time, on a shoot that lasts till August, she’s on set as a co-executive producer, “a sort of writer/producer” she explains.     

“Vastly different from theatre,” says the Ottawa-born author of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, the Governor General’s Award winner of 2021, finally opening at Theatre Network Thursday. Moscovitch’s Canadian theatre life, of writing alone “during daycare” hours, has changed, dramatically. Nightly she sits on set, supervising scripts, “surrounded by 400 people, “people with 20 or 30 years of experience in television, people who worked on Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or The Crown….It’s like 12-hour cue-to-cue days” (the relentless technical countdown week to opening night in live theatre), but it’s for months at a time. “It’s like a year of being in previews.”

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And (blame vampires for this) again we’ve found ourselves talking about time: the way it turns night into day, or compresses itself to squeeze through cracks, or can be made — even if, like Moscovitch, you really don’t have any. Or not made. After all, she has never even had time to see the hefty two-part six-hour stage adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s sweeping novel Fall On Your Knees that she and director Alisa Palmer co-created in the course of 13 years, as it finally opened in four big Canadian theatres this season.

Last time we talked, five years ago, Moscovitch was in New York, for the Off-Broadway opening of the klezmer musical/ song cycle/ folk tale Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, her hit collaboration with Ben Caplan and (her husband) Christian Barry of Halifax’s 2b Theatre.  It was the eve of Infinity at Theatre Network, a veritable Edmonton home for Moscovitch plays (their shared history that includes What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Little One, East of Berlin). And time was on her mind, not least because Infinity is a love story embedded into a time capture, the ultimately futile quest of a theoretical physicist to prove that time is “a persistent illusion.”

playwright Hannah Moscovitch

With Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, the playwright is struck, she says, by its defiance of time. “A play I started writing in 2014, before Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, before and Jeffrey Epstein” has, if anything, gained topicality.

Time has passed. Moscovitch’s theatre career has expanded explosively — into opera (Sky on Swings, 10 Days in a Madhouse) and onto the screen. Little Bird, co-created by Moscovitch (its executive producer) and Jennifer Podemski for Crave and APTN begins streaming May 26). As for Sexual Misconduct, originally planned and in rehearsal as the Canadian premiere at Theatre Network in 2020, the pandemic has delayed it again and again. The play has been produced across the country since then. TN, where time is no “persistent illusion,” has built and opened a entirely new theatre from the ground up in the time since Marianne Copithorne’s production was first programmed.

Gianna Vacirca in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, Theatre. Network. Photo by Ryan Parker

At the centre of Sexual Misconduct is the dynamic between a charismatic hotshot professor/ author at the end of his third marriage, and the talented 19-year-old student who’s a big admirer. Sexual attraction ensues, and escalates. The provocative edge is that Moscovitch has given the voice of the play to Jon, not Annie.

In 2017, Sexual Misconduct got a reading at Seattle Rep. “#MeToo hadn’t started; it’s almost impossible to stretch your mind back” to the before, says Moscovitch. “I was really frightened the entire audience would side with Jon, and despise Annie for exposing him…. And they didn’t! The opposite happened.”

“Maybe it was because it was Seattle? Maybe my own paranoia about how the story would be received by the audience? But I’ve never been so wrong, so fundamentally wrong, about audience reaction to one of my plays,” says Moscovitch. “They booed him at the end.”

The audience of 150 included a lot of female students. “And 30 or 40 stayed afterward to talk to me, one by one, about their similar experiences…. It was familiar to them; they knew what this was about.”

In retrospect, she can’t help but think “#MeToo was in the air, poised to happen. This was a precursor…. I hadn’t understood, in my mind, there had been a cultural shift. And people were thinking differently about whether it’s OK to sexually assault women. Because for so long it’s been kind of, you know, OK.”

Sexual Misconduct walks such a line,” says Moscovitch. “What happens in it isn’t illegal. It’s not rape. It’s not statutory rape; she’s 19. It’s consensual…. It’s one of these relationships in which there’s this massive imbalance of power. And also an age difference.” She says “I wanted to go after something that’s legal, but complicated.”

As Moscovitch points out, “it calls into question whose perspective through which we view these kinds of romances…. We’ve always watched them from a male perspective. And If you shift to a female one, you go ‘Oh? Really? What is happening? And why do we think it’s OK?” In a situation where a man has “a massive amount of power, to what degree does that sway one’s ability, truly, to consent?”

“I think about this a lot,” she says. “When I was growing up, there was Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. And I know who took the blame. She was an intern and he was the president of America. She gave him a blow job and got called a slut and a whore and it ruined her life, and he came out of it beautifully. We know who’s to blame when any sexuality happens, consensual or not….”

“So that’s what I expected would happen with my play. And that’s NOT what happened,” says Moscovitch, returning to the idea of a cultural shift.

Cole Humeny and Merran Carr-Wiggin in What A Young Wife Ought To Know, Theatre Network. 2018 photo by Ian Jackson.

Moscovitch has explored blame, revenge, and guilt in other plays, among them What A Young Wife Ought To Know (directed at Theatre Network by Marianne Copithorne in 2018) with its cautionary perspective on reproductive oppression, and Bunny, in which a young woman reviews her sexual history. And the slide to the right and regressive social currents in the U.S. feel like they come from a similar place, Moscovitch thinks. “It’s fine to blame women for sexuality; it’s fine to punish women for having sex, for rape, for unplanned pregnancy, for sexual assault, for sexual harassment….” There’s an audible sigh from Prague on the phone.

So why hand the ball to Jon, like many of Moscovitch’s narrators aware that there may be some challenges from the audience? Why give him so much leeway to try and justify himself? “That’s the dominant perspective; that’s how our culture works. We’re all going to be on his side, “says Moscovitch. “I didn’t want to write a female point of view play. I wanted to make everyone shift their perspective at a certain point.”

“One of the funniest outcomes has been that men sometimes mansplain that I should have done it all through the female perspective. That I’m not a good feminist. Which makes me laugh every time.”


Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

Theatre: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Written by: Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by: Marianne Copithorne

Starring: Gianna Vacirca, John Ullyatt

Running: through May 14

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca


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