Written by Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by Sarah Barton Stanley
Featuring: Matthew Edison and Alice Snaden
Set and Costume design by Michael Gianfrancesco
Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher
Sound design by Miquelon Rodriquez
Video design by Laura Warren
Dramaturgy Joanna Falck
Intimacy coach Siobhan Richardson
Playing at the Tarragon Theatre through February 2
The Tarragon Theatre is establishing a bit of a theme season this year with two plays about the academy, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes by Hannah Moscovitch, which opened recently and the upcoming, This Was The World by Ellie Moon, which opens at the end of January. Both plays deal with problems and power relationships within the post-secondary world of higher education. I’m sure there’s a masters thesis in there for someone or perhaps even a Ph.D in comp-lit.
In Hanna Moscovitch’s play, the well trod territory of student/ professor relationship is exploited once again but with a provocative sucker-punch at the end. Jon, a middle aged author (played by Matthew Edison), is something of a superstar within his institution because of the success of his novels. He has a high opinion of himself and somewhat of a condescending attitude toward everyone else, especially his students – except for one attractive young woman in a red coat named Annie (played by Alice Snaden). Annie always sits in the front row of his class and seems to hang on his every word. Jon can’t get her out of his mind. As it works out, she also lives right down the block from Jon. This is convenient for building the plot line in that she doesn’t have far to come when called upon to walk in and out of Jon’s story that he’s telling about his relationship with her.
I say walk in and out for a reason. It is clear from the get-go that the playwright has chosen to tell the story from Jon’s point of view. This is accomplished by his directed asides to the audience in which he describes his own backstory, works in exposition when necessary and is generally the anti-protagonist. Annie is never given equal opportunity to explain her side of the story by way of asides or monologues to the audience. She shows rather than tells. The only time she speaks in the play is when she has dialog with Jon.
We learn from Jon that he is well into a third marriage and separated from his current wife when he meets Annie. Jon finds Annie attractive and she, in turn, feels emotionally drawn to her professor. Jon is 42 years old and Annie is 19. Annie, a precocious literary type herself, tells Jon how much she admires his books and hopes that one day she might aspire to be a writer herself. Jon goes on at length (once while mowing the lawn) with his self critical asides, often using self-deprecating humor, in an attempt to explain how well aware he is that allowing himself to grow fond of this young woman is dangerous and will transgress boundaries that are professional, ethical and moral. Jon goes on to say, in spite of all this, he just can’t help himself.
Will this prove to be the fatal flaw in Jon’s character that will eventually bring him down?
When Annie locks herself out of her apartment one day and then injures herself trying to crawl through a window, she stops by Jon’s house to see if he has a bandaid. He does and he carefully administers to her wounds. It isn’t long before the conversation gets flirty and by the time the words “give blow jobs” pop out of Annie’s mouth, she has attracted Jon’s attention big time.
Mind you, Annie apologizes profusely for the ill-timed remark explaining that sometimes she speaks in an unguarded and unfiltered manner. Jon asides to the audience at one point that this is not going to end well for him and we tend to agree. If you ask me, all of this extended self psychoanalysis coming from Jon could have been summed up with one line: “Damn it! If I’d only kept it in my pants, I wouldn’t be in this situation.” But playwrights tend to go on a bit sometimes.
As characters, both Jon and Annie need things from each other. Jon’s attraction to Annie is mostly carnally based. Annie’s relationship to Jon is more complicated. She is enamored of Jon’s accomplishments and talent as a writer and is impressed with the status he holds professionally. She initiates a discussion on her own work and wants Jon to read and critique her original manuscript which she gives to him after they have had sex. Jon reads it and is relieved when he finds that the manuscript is actually quite good. When he relays his high opinion of her work to the emotionally fragile Annie, she breaks down in tears.
Although it is not mentioned in the dialog, Annie might also be looking for approval in other ways as well. She could be hoping for a high grade in her course that she is taking with Jon. A good letter of recommendation for graduate school perhaps, who knows? There is certainly opportunism abounding on both sides here on a number of different levels. That is what makes the play interesting and keeps us guessing as to how it will finally end up.
Matthew Edison and Alice Snaden are terrific as Jon and Annie. As the play’s egoistic artist-in-residence, he sneers at himself with great disgust while he continues to lust after young Annie. Snaden, on the other hand, plays the shy, insecure and emotionally needy role with spot-on accuracy as she pursues a scenario that she believes will have consequences in one way or another. Or not. The play keeps its secret right to the very end.
Director Sarah Barton Stanley paces the action, effectively building on this emotionally escalating journey. She is aided by Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design that has Annie (the girl in the red coat) coming and going in and out of tall, emotively red upstage doorways which ultimately provides perspective that points the main action downstage centre.
Since the play is entitled, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, I think my review would be remiss in not taking into account the said misconduct along with some comment on how it is portrayed on the stage.
It has become de rigueur of late, for reasons that should be readily apparent to everyone, that any play depicting scenes of sexual intimacy between actors, must employ the services of an “Intimacy Coach” (Siobhan Richardson for this production). Somewhat like the opposite of a Fight Director, the Intimacy Coach will work with the show’s director and the actors on how to block out a scene that portrays sex. The moves are carefully choreographed and constructed in such a way as to meet the comfort level of the actors involved and still depict the necessary intentions of the playwright.
With all of this attention put in on the sex scenes, I’m wondering why they were staged in such a hurried and frenetic manner. The first time they have sex, Jon and Annie have a quick little kiss, then a major standing lip-lock whereupon Annie reaches under her skirt and quickly removes her panties while Jon frantically tries to take off his belt and unzip his fly. They hit the bare stage floor rapidly and immediately go for penetration. Not very creative or romantic and also kind of icky. Perhaps this was the playwright’s intention, I don’t know.
The second scene is post-coital and at least the director and the intimacy coach see fit to put down a rug for the actors to lay down on as Jon and Annie discuss what has just happened and where their relationship may be going. This was better but not totally satisfactory because a short time later – when they meet in a hotel room – Annie insists on disrobing, proclaiming that it’s only the sex that Jon is looking for as he tries to tell her not to disrobe which she continues to do anyway – down to her bra and panties – before running off-stage in emotional disarray. To me, it seemed totally gratuitous.
I won’t give away the play’s ending but I would like to compliment the final lighting effect. I don’t know if this was called for in the script by the playwright or added in by designer, Bonnie Beecher, but the way they decided to fade to black was just lovely. Miquelon Rodriquez‘s soundscape provided melancholy minimalist piano arpegios much like a Philip Glass score that sometimes found itself in a cautionary dialogic contrast with the hilarity the audience was feeling at the end of a scene.
Jon and Annie are two imperfect people living in a very imperfect world. Which makes it a perfect play for our times. You really should go see it.