The first scene of Dissolution opens with two girls sprawled on the floor and soft-rock playing in the background, one at college and the other at home. While discussing boys, their parents, and smoking, they gaze up at the ceiling and not at each other, and I wonder to what force they are speaking. Is there an ever-present home-system that replaces talking on the phone to speaking upwards and above? Surely not: it’s 1999.
The background rock morphs into ominous cacophony while the lighting falls dim. A doctor appears from the corner, blood-stained and wearing a mask, and flatly reveals to one of them: “Your father is dead.” She slowly takes off all her clothes.
This opening scene is one of director and creator Leah Slang’s (‘18) many attempts at framing complexity, but the means themselves being confused. In tackling the task of “[giving] the past a body” as the Director’s Note states the play intends to do, what results is not cohesive resolve nor pertinent questions, but instead a set of frenetic tropes. Its goal is interesting and ambitious, but unfortunately, Dissolution fell short.
The play follows three siblings, Jenn (Cecilia Lang-Ree ’17) , Lizzie (Eve La Puma ’20), and Matt (Christopher Huntley ’20), in the years 1999 and 2016. In 1999, Jenn is in college while Lizzie and Matt are still at home, and the three must deal together with the divorce of their parents. Their father is revealed to be a source of constant judgement and pain, and the weight of his presence is coupled with personal anxieties surrounding body image, sexuality, perfectionism, and in Lizzie’s case, unexpected pregnancy. In the year 2016, their father passes away, and the three siblings are forced to reconcile their pasts and their changed relationships. Lizzie has a second child out of wedlock, after her first in high school, and is unhappily married. Jenn is divorced with no kids and is unhappy. Matt is closeted and unhappily married to a woman. Disappointment and dissatisfaction pervades all of their lives.
The plot and its setup are often confusing, with much leaping in time and space. When the scenes were otherwise clear, they were perhaps too unambiguous, reaching easy predictability. The performances of the three main actors made transparent their wrestling to wring the most out of their characters. La Puma is not given much to work with, but does so with conviction, having to display a very linear downfall of golden sister Lizzie by employing a sense of consistent and clenched anger, walking many long-strided paces across the stage.
Lizzie’s foreseeable trajectory is punctuated by the revealing of Jenn’s past. Despite warning Lizzie of all of the following, Jenn, too, smokes cigarettes, drinks so often that she can’t remember her first drink, fools around with boys, and is revealed to have had an abortion. It soon becomes clear that Jenn’s initial warning towards Lizzie against smoking symbolizes in addition every regret of Jenn’s. Slang uses the double-staging of scenarios and various, mirrored, supporting roles to display the repetitive reflection of the sisters’ exploration of drugs, alcohol, and sex. Eventually, the motif of mirroring became tired and omnipresent.
Each of the three siblings is given a soliloquy, a chance to display the possible multi-facetedness of their characters. In Jenn’s, fitting the flat revelation that she is everything that she wants Lizzie not to be, she questions woefully, “Does it count if the person forcing me…is myself?” amongst darkening, flickering lights. Huntley’s saving grace delivery of Matt’s soliloquy is the highlight of the performance. He takes the revealing of his closeted homosexuality to not be an ornament of “surprise” as the other bombshells feel, but as a genuine and moving display of internal strife and repression.
There was much that could have been explored with greater depth in Dissolution. The setup of siblings each with skeletons in the closet, albeit foreseeable ones, and fractured relationships, being forced to face one another with the death of their father, is a compelling one. What disappointed was that once the smoke and confusion cleared, the core material of the show was not exemplary nor provoking in and of itself, and questions were left neither answered nor posed.
Images courtesy of Frank Chen