One of the first plays I recall seeing outside of high school was at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. It was a production of David Mamet’s Oleanna starring a very young Sandra Oh. And yes I’ve been waiting to namedrop that for about a quarter-century.
It was a gripping, fiery, honest and challenging play about sexual harassment many many years before the #metoo movement or even hashtags for that matter. Ahem.
I had that work in the back of mind heading to the premiere of Hannah Moscovitch’s latest play Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, which runs at the Tarragon Theatre until Feb. 2. It was billed as something of a new take on #metoo penned by one of the country’s best playwrights.
Both plays have two characters: professor and university student. Both professors have some acclaim and notoriety. In Oleanna, the tension rises from grades and a misunderstanding of the course work leading to a complaint from the student that costs the professor tenure, while in Moscovitch’s work the tension rises at the hand of the young female student and is sexual in nature from the beginning carrying obvious job security risks for the professor, but also severe, if unsaid, risks to the student. Both are plays about power.
The professor in Sexual Misconduct, Jon, played very capably by Matthew Edison, is going through quite possibly his third failed marriage and is a bit of a wreck who offers up some half-hearted protestations about why involving himself with a young student is such a bad idea. It doesn’t last long.
That student is Annie. Annie lives across from Jon’s home and is locked out of her house one day thus kick-starting their mutual attraction. With Annie, the audience finds a woman clearly youthful and innocent, but at the same time one that holds a somewhat dark and pessimistic outlook in terms of the realities of how things with the professor might go down.
She’s been a loner, she’s done things of a sexual nature of which she isn’t proud. She wants to be liked. More importantly, she wants to be liked by Jon.
Now, I will say that the play does offer some fresh takes not just in the text but in the structure of the play and the production itself. The play is told from the point of view of the professor, and we find out why with the surprise ending, which I will not spoil here. In this way, the audience gets to glimpse the professor’s inner-workings or lack thereof, which primarily revolve around his ego.
The set is minimalist and fun, the use of an electronic sign is good for a few laughs. The way Annie always enters the stage from the audience is unique and compelling. The direction by Sarah Garton Stanley was spot on and without reproach.
And, without going any further, Alice Snaden’s portrayal of Annie is very moving. She embodies all that youthful optimism and naivete upon first meeting Jon and as the years pass quickly in the 80-minute play, first four years and then more than a decade, the change in her is powerful. And that is no small task.
But the play also offers a bleak look at a typical middle-class life. And, only middle-class life. This kind of thing, one could infer from the play, doesn’t happen other than with a certain segment of society dealing with such overwhelming ennui that sexual misadventures are par for the course almost like a golf membership and a cottage on Lake Joe. Everyone is doing it, apparently. So that’s new, I suppose.
Of course, the grit of the matter. The patriarchal power structures at work that mess with people, the culpability, the aftermath for Annie. Well, it’s all there. It’s the now age-old tale that we have been talking about and creating art around for far too long.
Oleanna ends with the professor beating his student. Here, we find Annie, after more than a decade of trying to come to grips with what happened finally and ironically using the written word to exorcise her demon. But that’s enough said about that.
The play is powerful and clever and funny at times, almost satirical. It’s worth seeing. Sadly this issue is far from over as a new generation of artists must and is bringing more powerful stories forward to add to the conversation.