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Wet Brain

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - June 7, 2023

Arturo Luís Soria, Frankie J. Alvarez, and Ceci Fernández
Photo by Joan Marcus
Dysfunctional families rarely emerge as dysfunctional as the one portrayed in Wet Brain, John J. Caswell, Jr.'s high-decibel whatsit of a comedy-drama on Playwrights Horizons' mainstage in a co-production with MCC Theater. It carries a strong whiff of autobiography, one that's confirmed in Caswell's telling program note. Amusing? At times. Visually impressive? Absolutely, with Kate Noll's stunner of a set. Clear? No, clarity is not Caswell's calling card.

We're in what the script calls "a shitty part of Scottsdale, Arizona," amply reflected in Noll's detailed depiction of a small, eloquently run-down suburban domicile. (Later we're on its realistically designed roof, where the three siblings with no last name used to play, and there's one more major visual coup to come.) From tatty sofa to circa-1975 color TV, it's no place you'd want to hang. It's home to the sixtysomething Joe (Julio Monge), who's even more of a walking disaster than his kids. Ravaged by decades of alcoholism, he's unsteady on his feet, nonverbal except for yells and the occasional discernible word among many nonsense syllables, and given to frequent vomiting. He also hallucinates a lot, conveyed by light and sound cues, though we don't get to share in his hallucinations. Oh, and he may be a space alien. Monge's main tasks are to stumble and howl; these he accomplishes masterfully, though when we transition into a fantasy sequence where he's intelligible and intact, he doesn't seem the same person at all.

Also living here, and taking the best care of Joe she can, which isn't good enough, is daughter Angelina (Ceci Fernández), a frustrated lower-middle-class misfit indifferently studying to be a nurse. When brother Ricky (Arturo Luís Soria) comes for a reluctant visit from New York, the fraternal screaming and cursing begins immediately and never stops. It intensifies with the appearance of Ron (Frankie J. Alvarez), the third sibling, an argumentative, hyper-macho auto body mechanic who loves to taunt his gay brother. Caswell doesn't say in his program note which brother is patterned after himself, but I'm betting it's not Ron.

And that's what a lot of Wet Brain is: three early-middle-aged sibs squabbling over what to do about Dad, while digging up previous resentments and recriminations. Ricky hasn't visited in ages, having uncertainly leapt into financial executive ranks in New York City and not wanting to return to the scene of a previous crime, where he was gay-bashed by Joe's crew and Joe stood by and watched. Ron's in the middle of a troubled marriage where he's clearly not the injured party. Angelina's stressed out, as who wouldn't be, looking after Joe. The insults fly.

And that's mostly the fun part of Wet Brain: three undisciplined siblings shooting the shit and yanking each other's chains. Angelina, to Ricky: "Okay, quick listen, so with Dad these days you wanna try to keep a distance of about four five feet in case he pukes, and don't make eye contact." Ron, to Ricky: "Goddamn, dude, you sound like way more homosexual." Ricky, about Joe: "I don't care what fucking happens to him." Alvarez, Fernández, and Soria have an easy rapport, talking over one another as Ron, Angelina, and Ricky complain, all the while mourning Mona, their long-deceased mother, though she obviously wasn't a model mom. The details of her death constitute a surprise, and help explain how Joe got to be as f'd up as he is.

Which leads to, what shall we call it, a collective dreamscape? Noll's set revolves to reveal ... it's hard to describe it, a sort-of overhead view of the sort-of family room, where a reconstituted Mona (Florencia Lozano) dispenses her version of motherly affection: "I wish I were able to feel glad at seeing you all again, but I can't, it won't come." What transpires in this longish scene is, to these eyes, mostly incomprehensible, but it seems to be an outer-space sort of version of the family's ids: the sibs' rivalries receiving an inarticulate airing; Mona reliving her unhappy existence and demise; and Joe explaining why he drank–"first to feel good, then to feel fine, then to feel less, then to feel nothing."

Caswell seems to have some strange astral insights in mind about dynamics in fractured families, but amid Cha See's shifting light designs, sound designers Tei Blow and John Gasper's explosions signifying who knows what, and dialogue that often strays from basic noun-verb construction, those insights just didn't come through for me. Dustin Wills, the director, seems more interested in arresting stage pictures then explaining what they mean.

As Caswell writes in his program note: "Who needs another sentimental family drama crying over an insidious yet all-too-common disease? O'Neill already did the damn thing anyway." Indeed, and Wet Brain is no Long Day's Journey Into Night. The two share uncaring fathers, brotherly conflict, addictions, and little else. Caswell, we can tell, has been through a lot, and Wet Brain–like any number of contemporary plays, from A Strange Loop to Leopoldstadt–appears to be a form of self-therapy, but what he's trying to say remains maddeningly obscure. If anybody can figure it out, do speak up. Also, if you can figure out what the title means.

Wet Brain
Through June 25, 2023
Playwrights Horizons / MCC Theater
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, New York NY
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