Review: Wet Brain Is a Compelling Portrait of Family Dysfunction

Playwrights Horizons and MCC Theater premiere the new play by John J. Caswell Jr.

Julio Monge and Florencia Lozano star in John J. Caswell, Jr.’s Wet Brain, directed by Dustin Wills, for MCC and Playwrights Horizons at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

Sibling dynamics can be complicated–especially when caregiving for a parent is involved–and especially when alcoholism, substance abuse, and addiction are involved. John J. Caswell Jr.’s new play, Wet Brain, a Playwrights Horizons and MCC Theater coproduction, sits at this messy intersection.

The play reunites three siblings, Angelina (Ceci Fernández), Ron (Frankie J. Alvarez), and Ricky (Arturo Luís Soria), who unhappily come together to figure out how to care for, or more accurately, what to do with, their father, Joe (Julio Monge). Joe is severely alcoholic: he can no longer speak and mostly stumbles around, vomiting on himself, urinating in corners, and generally wreaking havoc (plus, their mother committed suicide when they were younger).

Things have reached a tipping point because Angelina, his live-in primary caregiver, is studying to be a nurse and has decided to move out. Ron aids in small ways, going through the motions of helping his father get dressed and ready for work at their auto-body shop each morning, but Ron is too much of a mess to do anything more substantial. Ricky left home long ago, in part due to the homophobia he faced at the hands of his father and is uncomfortable being forced to come back. As if this wasn’t itself a recipe for drama, add the fact that all three of the siblings are also dealing with various substance abuse issues themselves. Understandably, things get tense quickly.

Ceci Fernández plays Angelia, and Arturo Luís Soria plays Ron in John J. Caswell, Jr.’s Wet Brain, directed by Dustin Wills, for MCC and Playwrights Horizons at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

Caswell deftly crafts his characters and the world they inhabit. Over the course of 90 minutes, you get to know each of them, and their various traumas, deeply. Their conflicting priorities are delicately spun in a way that feels quite real. After all, when presented with how to provide care for a parent, siblings do often bicker, with the task often falling to women and/or the youngest relations. They are bound to disagree about the best course of action in terms of how much professional help is needed, and the many debates the three siblings have in Wet Brain are painfully true to life.

It is hard to not feel bad for Angelina, burdened with the brunt of their terrible father for years. Then again, Ricky’s fleeing from his family and his home is also quite understandable, since it was not a safe space for him. Ron, though, seems completely in denial and incompetent, perhaps even doomed to follow a similar path as their father. While each of the siblings play a key role in this dysfunctional ecosystem, the actors are not equally matched. Fernández is the strongest of the trio, playing Angelina with a toughness that hides her hurt. Alvarez, on the other hand, is the weakest, becoming obnoxious and devolving into caricature.

Throughout the play there is an air of the supernatural, especially surrounding Joe’s drunken stumbling and various otherworldly transitions. The set, by Kate Noll, is a house that unsettlingly shifts a bit back and forth between scenes, hinting at a larger desgin to come. The lights (Cha See) and projections (Nick Hussong) likewise foreshadow something creepy and decidedly beyond realism. There is a payoff to the Joe’s obsession with aliens and the brothers’ memories of being on the roof with him and looking for a specific star. This play will take you to unexpected places, some more successful than others.

Julio Monge plays Joe in John J. Caswell, Jr.’s Wet Brain, directed by Dustin Wills, for MCC and Playwrights Horizons at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

As director, Dustin Wills (fresh off the triumphant Wolf Play) does not find the exact footing that Wet Brain needs. The text is strong, though it does not always manage to convince, and some of the dialogue can feel a bit stilted. Wills can’t always navigate the tonal shifts from comedic sibling banter to trauma dumping, to heavy conversations about caregiving and addiction, to intergalactic journeys. The production doesn’t reach its full potential, though it does still have quite a bit to offer.

In a key scene, a sort of astral plane ad-hoc family therapy session, the siblings realize they do not need to forgive their problematic parents, but they also shouldn’t spend their lives hating them. If they do, that hatred will consume them. It is moments like this that prove that while Wet Brain might be an imperfect play, it has vital lessons to offer us and is a compelling portrait of dysfunction.

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Wet Brain

Closed: July 2, 2023