By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The man we meet in Sexual Misconduct in the Middle Classes has a lot going for him. At 42, Jon is a talented professor who gives good class. He’s a famous author. He has celebrity, good looks, self-deprecating charm, a sense of humour.
In short, as the acid-tipped title of Hannah Moscovitch’s very clever play hints, he’s presentable. And he knows right from wrong, queasy from OK. Until somehow he doesn’t.
Jon’s affair with his 19-year-old student Annie isn’t something he’s actively sought out. No, he’s wincingly aware of the middle-aged man/ young girl cliché that reduces girls to “ciphers,” as he puts it. No, he’s attracted to grown-up women, not “little fucking girls,” as he says. The Governor General’s Award-winning play, finally onstage at Theatre Network after three years of COVIDIAN delays, doesn’t let you off the hook that way, in a world where the ripples of #MeToo have spread from the tailings pond of gross sexual criminality from the filthy rich Weinstein-ian classes.
Marianne Copithorne’s crack production takes on a play that’s all about probing further, into the ‘what possessed him?’ — the apparently inexplicably bad behaviour of respectable men who do know better. And you can’t not be actively engaged, since Jon, in John Ullyatt’s performance, is so … engaging as he talks directly to us.
As Ullyatt plays him, expertly, Jon is wry, “agitated” and genuinely rueful about his responsibility for the “dumpster fire” of his third marriage. Although susceptible to flattery, as he acknowledges, he’s worldly about seeming not to be too high-handed about his authorial fame. He talks about himself in the third person, in an amusing, self-critical observer sort of way.
The affair that’s at the centre of the play isn’t rape, it’s not exactly assault, it’s not exactly a lot of things. The word consensual, though, sticks in the craw.
Annie, the talented first-year undergrad in a red coat played by the terrific Gianna Vacirca, is tentative in an excruciatingly awkward way. Awestruck into shyness by her admiration for the famous writer, she doesn’t so much speak her fandom as blurt it, in retractable fragments. And Vacirca gives her youthful lack of assurance, as both student and teenager, a movement lexicon (coach: Christine Bandelow) that’s jerky, nervous, almost doll-like. She never quite knows what to do with her hands, her arms, her body. Someone does, though.
It’s a far cry, smarter and far more subtle in its set-up, than the very male deck-stacking that goes on in David Mamet’s 1992 Oleanna, an obvious point of comparison, in which a male professor up for tenure gets more or less victimized by a student. I can’t quite imagine a reason to produce it at this moment in history, except maybe as a teaching experience.
Anyhow, here, the affair starts in an innocuous way. Jon, being a hapless career intellectual, is trying to get his lawnmower started. Annie gets injured trying to climb through a window into her rental digs nearby. And Jon, who’s hip to the optics and thinks of himself as cliché-resistant, is reluctant to invite her inside his place to bandage her scrapes. The settings — Jon’s office, his front porch, his book-lined living room, the fateful door — are fulsomely realized by designer Tessa Stamp, whose costume choices for both characters give you a little shiver of recognition.
What starts with a band-aid and her perusal of his library (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet springs to hand) ends in sex. And one thing leads to another, however against Jon’s own instincts it is. Darrin Hagen’s serial score, dominated by sadder-but-wiser cello strains (Morag Northey), loops forward and stays the same, a built-in musical metaphor.
“This, he recognized, was not good,” Jon says to us, as the affair starts. And there’s a moment when we realize that his third-person delivery, which started out as a charmingly critical narrative stance, a male gaze on the male gaze, is actually a way of morally justifying himself to us. This complex, nuanced, guilty relationship with the audience is something Moscovitch has honed to a fine dramatic edge elsewhere in her plays. And it’s revelatory here, as director Copithorne skilfully charts its course.
Meanwhile, Annie’s understanding of the dynamics at play expands in every scene, as Vacirca’s performance recognizes. She comes to know, as a hopeful writer, the missed opportunity of his mentorship, for one thing. And our understanding expands too. The play is all about exploring how on earth a man of discernment and insight, who positions himself in the jokey jaded professor mode — he talks of “pale and pimpled” students, or the student smell of digesting cheap food — could possibly start an affair with a naive 19-year-old in his class.
It’s Jon, not Annie, who owns the narration, a choice designed to challenge us. And there’s a moment when we realize that Jon’s insightfulness is all about himself. He doesn’t understand his own power, and hence his own responsibility. He doesn’t look outward. In a theatrical twist I must not reveal, power changes hands again in this riveting 90-minute play, which takes its characters some years into the future.
It’s complex and intricate. And in a way it’s simple. And that combination, an incitement to active thought, has real punch. An exciting night in the theatre with a top-drawer cast.
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