Stereotypical he-said, she-said trope is deftly, rivetingly sidestepped in story of campus affair
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Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes is a two-person show about authorship and the power dynamics at play during a tryst between a charismatic literature professor and his impressionable 19-year-old student, who happens to live right down the street.
Based on that all-too-brief synopsis, one might imagine the seemingly simple story to unfold in a familiar setting: in a classroom with a dusty chalkboard, on a dewy university quadrangle, or between the stacks of an ancient library, not far from Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous novel.
Instead, the set at the Tom Hendry Warehouse (designed by Kara Pankiw) is filled with interlocking staircases and intricate, labyrinthine walkways, all coloured grey, making clear that nothing is what it seems, and that at any moment, the entire landscape could shift beneath us.
What begins almost as a screwball comedy in tone — complete with a meet-cute on the sidewalk — becomes a seriocomic satire in essence and scope.
It’s 2014, and 40-something Jon (Kevin Aichele) is twice divorced and inching toward his third failed marriage. He’s a rock-star novelist who seems to believe that wearing a tweed coat is enough to make him an educator. He is working on a novel about turn-of-the-century lumberjacks. Write what you know, right?
But as he tries to elude his writer’s block, an image flashes before him: a girl in a red coat. But who is she? And why can’t he stop thinking about her?
An unreliable narrator, Jon insists his is an innocent mental image — he actually tells the audience he’s outgrown his cheerleader fantasies — but when Annie (Bailey Chin) shows up on his doorstep, he is breathlessly, anxiously panicked by her presence.
The terrifically understated Chin, a Winnipegger, imbues Annie at first with a nervous innocence that is less related to her character’s capabilities as a writer than it is to her place within a patriarchal hierarchy. Away from home for the first time, painfully shy, and quietly lonely, Annie is in search of some sort of friendship, and at the very least, some sort of mentorship from her famous professor.
She read his books in high school, she tells him. “It was nice to know someone out there thought what I thought,” she says in an early meeting.
Aichele’s Jon takes that as a compliment. He takes everything as a compliment. “Flattery was genderless,” he says.
He makes unfunny jokes and asks people who don’t laugh if they get it. He is a grown man who is fully aware of his transgressions, which makes them that much worse. He assumes consent once means consent always.
However much he knows about literature, he clearly knows very little about healthy relationships, and based on the authors he cites — Hemingway, Thoreau, Whitman — he may never have read anything by a non-male author. This is as much a critique of academic and literary systems built on toxic masculinity, male worship, and gatekeeping as it is of Jon’s role within it.
It is a credit to Aichele’s skill that he retains a veneer of likability despite his character’s obvious ethical deficiencies. Some of his more discomfiting, dehumanizing line readings — describing women as “doll-eyed” or angrily, ironically lamenting their “histrionics” — are somehow still sandwiched between flickers of laughter (Canadian playwright Moscovitch excels at layering her characters in unpredictable orders). To Jon, this is all source material for comedic autofiction. But what about Annie?
We don’t know much about her, because our narrator doesn’t seem to care to learn. He knows she is 19. He insists, after reading her work, that she is a good writer; the word he uses, inducing cringes, is “wunderkind.” But Annie’s voice, at least through the first several chapters of this Governor General’s Award-winning play, is muted.
Then, Pankiw’s landscape shifts.
Under restrained direction from the Royal MTC’s artistic director Kelly Thornton, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes is given space to grow into itself, just as Annie recognizes her own power within a dominant patriarchal society. Although Annie doesn’t say much with her voice, her body language speaks volumes. When we first meet her, she is depicted according to her professor’s male gaze — waiflike, virginal, searching — but that vantage point is as limiting as it is inaccurate. Over time, the once-slouched Chin begins to stand tall.
While expectations dictate this play might devolve into the stereotypical he-said, she-said trope, Moscovitch wisely avoids convention, knowing that in a relationship built on such a gross imbalance of power, no conversation can ever be fair or equal. The connotation of he-said, she-said is a 50-50 split. Reality is not so evenly divided down the middle.
But Annie’s moment in the light is on the horizon. And Jon’s? It has already come and gone.
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.