The setting is Scottsdale, Arizona for a family that comes together to bicker over the now-next-to-impossible-for-one-person chore of caregiving for a father whose decades of alcohol abuse leave him speech-compromised. Wet Brain, a deceptively engaging play by John J. Caswell, Jr., is certainly a catchier title than what it refers to, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), which is a brain disorder related to the acute and chronic phases of a vitamin B1 (Thiamine) deficiency. A Google search tells us Thiamine depletion is seen in individuals with poor nutrition and is a common complication of long-term, heavy drinking.
We join this treacherous rollercoaster ride of a play as a car’s headlights go up on Joe, the father, returning from a trip to the convenience store for his case of 24 Dasani water bottles. We find out later that the drinking of water is a ploy – his other pit stop is a liquor store to purchase vodka. He uses the convenience store men’s room to pour out all the water and refill the bottles with the vodka. This is one of many dog-and-pony shows members of the family put on for the sake of appearances. Ron, the eldest son, comes over every morning to get his father fed, washed and dressed in his automotive garage uniform in an attempt to start each day with a ritual of normalcy. Once Dad starts vomiting on himself, Ron announces that “Dad has to call in sick today” alluding to perhaps how this downward spiral began years ago and was allowed to perpetuate.
The arrival of Ricky, the “prodigal son,” is a result of the long-distance plea of the men’s sister Angelina who after years of being virtually the full-time caregiver is now bolting in pursuit of a nursing certificate and an apartment of her own. Ricky left the house 4 or 6 years ago (that depends on who is telling the story) after being subjected to a hostile homophobic environment at home and at the family business. Mention is made of an incident at the automotive garage where an intentional beatdown of Ricky by the mechanics may have escalated into a vicious gangrape in full view of Joe who did nothing to stop it. Ricky’s good grades, and an MBA, helped him to escape to the safe environment of New York City from which he has been guilted into leaving to now address the long-term care of his father.
Caswell has created a rich canvas of four thoroughly sympathetic characters that we can’t bear to watch, nor can we dare to look away. Joe, in his helplessness, is pitiable. He is lost and can’t negotiate true relationships with his offspring after their mother committed suicide. The suicide was done on a grand scale, too – Mona dons her fur coat and hangs herself from a ceiling fan in the family room on Christmas Eve, just a few feet away from the Christmas tree and the kids’ gifts. It couldn’t get more gruesome and sadder than that. One person’s bouts with mental illness leaves a family scarred forever.
The performances throughout are nothing less than riveting. Julio Monge as Joe is heartbreaking from the very first scene. Grunting, for lack of normal speech, mixed with nonsense lyrics and a deer-in-the-headlights cavernous stare are his stock-in-trade until he opens up in the dreamlike fantasia of all members in the family room with mom still alive. In that sequence we see the attentive father and husband that could have been, if not for his own demons (and hallucinations). Monge creates a deliberate physical life for his character – he doesn’t use stairs. Instead, he tucks and rolls and lands where he lands. A fun moment late in the play finds the very inebriated Monge watching horrified as a Roomba vacuum traverses the family’s living room.
Ceci Fernández as Angelina is that smoldering fire that is unthreatening until it’s anything but. Her bid to live her own life comes at the costly price of suppressing the lives that her brothers have been allowed to live at her expense. Hers is a performance that is tempered with an impatience for the selfishness of her brothers – it is not a threat of “I’m going,” but more an incredulous “you didn’t even see me leave.” Frankie J. Alvarez as Ron is a captivating portrayal of that dangerous apple-not-falling-far-from-the-tree. Ron can pass for normal in his relationship to his father, his siblings, and his wife, but it’s that layer underneath that packs the wallop. Unapologetic in his homophobic disdain for his brother, he also berates his sister for what may be a lesbian relationship she is in with her nursing instructor. When he and his wife are having their differences, he camps out at his father’s home in a show of faux “round-the-clock care” hiding his own beer bottles in the bathroom’s toilet tank. Alvarez’s depiction of the fall from all things that are strong, powerful and yes, even masculine, is poignant, as it is suffocating and wistful.
The arrival of Ricky, the middle child, provides the impetus for all that follows. While his siblings expect him to share the responsibility, his appearance is responded to with accusations and blistering opinions on the way he has chosen to live his life. Ron attacks with “I was homophobic way before you turned gay, and I’m supposed to change?” as a demarcation of what’s permissible in “their” house. Arturo Luís Soria is superb as the voice of reason in a family that has otherwise thrown their hands up in defeat. It is easiest to see the family’s storyline unfurl through his eyes, as like him, we haven’t been there to witness the father’s deterioration over time. Soria’s comedic timing is flawless. Here too, the outer performance of Ricky is a charade. We discover later that his own addictions forced him out of a high-paying executive position with severance, accompanied by an order to seek rehabilitative help to overcome his addiction.
Florencia Lozano as the mom, and later as Crystal, the home health aide, is a delight as she navigates the subtlest of shadings between the two very similar-in-temperament characters. We meet both of her characters in the third act – Mona, hanging from her own noose, including herself in the family conversation as if she’s there to chat and watch her kids open their gifts, and Crystal, there to watch over Joe as Ricky leaves for rehab, Angelina goes to live on her own, and Ron tries to patch up what’s left of his very frayed marriage. Is it any wonder Mona killed herself when we hear one of her first responses, “My babies, my children, my personal demons” as that can be a list, or it can be a very interesting acknowledgment of how she perceived motherhood. She delivers one of the best lines in the entire play. When Ricky asks his mother, “Did it hurt when your neck snapped?” she replies, “The neck didn’t snap. I suffocated while staring at the Sears family photo crooked on the wood-paneled wall. Oh god, please tell me someone straightened it out.” Her Crystal reveals a thoughtful, yet no-nonsense cross between Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hot Lips Houlihan in M*A*S*H.
Director Dustin Wills, so spot-on at maneuvering actors through complicated family relationships and tearful life episodes in last year’s success for Soho Rep, Hansol Jung’s Wolf Play, has managed to elicit the sincerest portrait of a family whose dysfunction leads to addiction with true connection hot on its heels. He guides the repartee between siblings, both familial as well as adversarial, so it seems the most honest way they can possibly communicate under the circumstances. Shouting matches are de rigueur. He has created here a family that earns our attention and compassion.
Designers for this production have outdone themselves. Kate Noll’s scenic design is stunning in its immensity, especially for an off-Broadway theatre. The set reveals the interior of an Arizona ranch style, but as it moves gently, we get to see bits of the outside. We can see the ladder to the roof directly through the kitchen sink window. The outside of the house and the roof create even more depth. And then there is the amazing trick of flipping the family room on its side. It is a marvel of stagecraft in so many ways. Cha See’s lighting design complements the scenic elements so well. The opening scene alone is quite an achievement in that we become conscious Joe has tried to stay hidden until the car headlights track him down. An ingenious effect later has the stage lit from only one desk lamp and the hazy blue from bug repellent fixtures hanging over the patio grill.
Nick Hussong’s projection designs fit snugly into the overall look with nighttime stars adding luster to a night sky. The sound design of Tei Blow and John Gasper is something right out of the eeriest sci-fi spectacles, down to the tiniest detail. The creepy sound of Mona’s noose squeaking as she swings dead is an effect that in other’s hands would have gone ignored. Haydee Zelideth Antuñano’s costume designs are an exacting faithfulness to what the best dressed trailer park trash is wearing these days.
Caswell’s dialogue for and wry observation of a family this dysfunctional is quite compelling. Scenes where two of the siblings verbally gang up on the third are fraught with humor as much as real-life situations. Communication is “at your own risk,” with each goading the other about their addictions, instigating full-on relapses at every turn. It is no secret this is a very personal piece for the author. The dedication to the play reads: ”For my father if he’s out there. And for my siblings.”
It is a play as much about love and loss (and grief) as it is about the addictions that create chasms in a family. And it is a play that deep down reveals a family with a lot of heart.
Wet Brain (through July 2, 2023)
Playwrights Horizons, co-produced with MCC Theater
Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: 95 minutes without intermission