Wet Brain Review. A family dysfunctional, and also extraterrestrial?

Joe’s three messed-up adult children long have known Joe to be an alcoholic, an addict and a horrid father. But they didn’t realize he was an alien from Outer Space.

They learn this – and so does the audience – in a scene that is the unmistakable highlight of “Wet Brain,” which has opened tonight at Playwrights Horizons. The scene is memorable thanks largely to scenic designer Kate Noll, but everybody has a hand in it, including playwright John J. Caswell Jr. and the fine five-member cast.

Before we get to this intergalactic sweet spot, we witness some heavy-duty dysfunction. In the family’s rundown house in Scottsdale, Arizona, Joe (Julio Monge) makes nonsense sounds instead of English, vomits, stumbles, is self-evidently on the verge of death.

His three children are all drunks, in various stages of reform, relapse or resignation. Their mother Mona committed suicide years ago.  The children are so unkind to one another that there are moments that veer toward an adult version of a Punch and Judy comedy. “I was homophobic way before you turned gay and I’m supposed to change?” Ron (Frankie J. Alvarez) says to his younger brother Ricky (Arturo Luis Soria.)  

All three children do have a special bond: They all hate their parents. But they also grieve for their mother and sacrifice for their father, some more than others.  Ron ,who keeps the family’s auto body shop going,  gave Joe one of his kidneys. By contrast, Ricky has stayed away for years, escaping to New York after the mechanics in the shop beat him up because he’s gay, while Joe watched.  Ricky is now a business executive; he’s returned at the request of Angelina (Ceci Fernández), the youngest, who is sick of being Joe’s caregiver, and is planning to move away and finally get an education – to become (ironically) a nurse. 

While there are vague teases of supernatural goings-on from the get-go, it’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the 95-minute play that the set spins around, and…transforms. None of the photographs provided by the production show this scene, and they might consider it a spoiler to provide details.   Let me just say it’s a perspective that you rarely see on stage. 

Make that two perspectives – the distinctive visual one put together by the designers, and the psychological one by the playwright, who has been open about how he mined his painful family history to write “Wet Brain.”

His admission made me think of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse Five,” which involves time travel and alien abduction but centers on the Allied firebombing of the German city of Dresden during World War II. This was carnage that Vonnegut personally witnessed as an American POW imprisoned there.  The experience reportedly so traumatized him that it took him two decades to write about it – and he did so with the real trauma cushioned by science fiction fantasy.

I suspect that Caswell is doing much the same thing.  In the intergalactic space, Mona (Florencia Lozano) is now alive, though hanging from the rope that she used to kill herself, and both she and Joe are happy to answer any questions their three children might have of them.   And the children oblige, asking the kinds of questions that gnaw for a lifetime – Why was Joe so self-destructive? Why did Mona commit suicide? Why did she like her daughter better than her sons? – and actually getting straightforward answers

The conceit is that the children won’t remember the answers or anything at all about this extraplanetary excursion. But the hope is that the experience will work beneath the surface to help them heal.

It is easier to appreciate “Wet Brain” by treating the sci fi aspects as a metaphor, one that the playwright might have imagined to help him deal with his own trauma. Director Dustin Wills has put together a production that allows us to go to a dubious Outer Space in order to contemplate these characters’ credibly complicated inner space, and perhaps our own. 

Wet Brain
Playwrights Horizons through June 25, 2023
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Written by John J. Caswell, Jr.
Directed by Dustin Wills
Scenic design by Kate Noll, costume design by Haydee Zelideth Antuñano, lighting design by Cha See, sound design by Tei Blow and John Gasper
Cast: Frankie J. Alvarez as Ron,Ceci Fernández as Angelina,Florencia Lozan as Mona,Julio Monge as Joe, and Arturo Luis Soria as Ricky.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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