The Dissemblers is strikingly polished. The set is stylish and its pieces re-arrange neatly. The actors sustain an energy that balances laughter against darkness. Cast and crew have a strong collective sense of timing, and scene slides swiftly into scene. Some of the cleverest staging opens the play. A couple carries on a touchy, sparring conversation as they move through downtown Vancouver with the perfect synchronicity of long ritual, wielding umbrellas, collecting coffees, giving rude drivers the finger with an shared air of accustomed protest.
Dashel (John Murphy), a commercially successful artist who makes sculpture out of dead crows, is engaged to Mi Mi (Medina Hahn). He is also having sex with his assistant, Olivia (Sasa Brown), and trying to salvage his old friendship with Simon, a real estate agent (Michael Rinaldi). Repairing relations with Simon is difficult, because the two men don’t agree about the ethics of dead animal art or the moral value of real estate. And because the tightly controlled Mi Mi can’t stand Simon’s desperately nervous girlfriend, Jules (engagingly played by Jennifer Mawhinney). The plot is spare but it manages to convincingly wind tight several odd relationships and let others snap or unravel onstage.
Watching this play, it is hard to tell who really sees clearly and who is about to get blindsided, as well as whether the barbed truths these characters sling at each other are sincere attempts at friendship or the impulses of plain cruelty. The actors handle subtle moods well: Murphy and Rinaldi manage, in one earnestly angry argument, to provoke audience laughter without seeming complicit in it; Brown is refreshingly wide-eyed without being innocent. There are surprises, and not the expected ones: in the end the play’s most stunning revelation is the twisted chemistry of Mi Mi’s relationship with Jules—its outrageousness so nonchalant as to be captivating.
The Dissemblers may be about deception but it is also about scripts, those patterns of behaviour and habits of mind we adopt or fall into, which help us make sense of our lives and relationships. (Marriage. Friendship. Artistic integrity. Terminal illness. Having cake and eating it too.) Our scripts will fail us, Brydon shows, if we forget we’re not alone on stage, because a person never really knows what other stories are playing out behind his back. So Dashel, who thinks every story is about him, will discover with pain that he is wrong. Jules has a different problem: the panic of not knowing what script to follow.
To dissemble is to hide truth behind a deceitful surface, and some appearances do indeed deceive in Brydon’s play. But the polish of this production is not just glossy veneer. The characters are vividly acted—more believable, perhaps, than they were supposed to be—and the dialogue is fresh. The only predictable shallowness on stage belongs to Vancouver. Rainy, real-estate obsessed, and pretentious, the city’s exciting restaurants are fancy cafeterias serving silly fusion (“Russian peasant food with a west coast twist”). The only enlightening perspective the city offers is a view of the mountains, and that turns out to be scene-stoppingly banal. The Dissemblers may not excavate profound depths, but its play of surfaces is fascinating.