By Sarah Downs
I saw Wet Brain and lived to tell the tale. A story of one family’s relationship to addiction, the play barrels its way through a tangle of emotional damage in a white-knuckle marathon of anxiety and anger. Each family member has fallen to prey to multiple addictions, which come flying at you left and right. This kind of startling chaos could potentially illuminate, if the intensity didn’t start at 70, inch up to 72 and never work its way back down again.
Unfortunately, despite its textual density, the play doesn’t really cohere, as it attempts to include all the things without any taxonomy linking action to consequence. The storytelling chases its tale and doesn’t really develop. You are as confused at the end as you were at the beginning. This lack of focus burdens the excellent cast with the job of clawing through the flotilla of co-dependencies as they attempt to move the play forward. It’s a heavy lift.
The cast do skillfully manage the quickfire dialogue, finding moments of authenticity, pace and humor, because they are that good. In particular, Ceci Fernández, as the daughter Angelina, gives a stellar performance. I believed her from the first moment onstage and stayed on board throughout the play. She created an arc out of thin air – with nuance, humor, intensity and true vulnerability. All of the actors make the most of their roles, demonstrating a command of fluid emotion, despite the play’s lack of clarity.
At a key moment in the narrative, the world suddenly spins out of control, landing in an absurdist meta space. It is a set piece that would have made a good ending — a wacky, dystopian snapshot of the family dynamic, offering a hint of context. However, my hopes were in vain, as this more cosmic moment turned out to be an interlude, as it were, an entirely different play – both in tone and temperament – from its bookends. What could have been a cool ‘alternate reality’ button became a talky mini-play that went on too long and just kind of left us hanging. Then it was back to the crowded, split level home of this enmeshed family, where the narrative shed a tiny bit of light in the darkness and then kind of petered out.
The only relief from the family’s crippled reality are the glimpses we are given of the father Joe’s (an intense, affecting Julio Monge) cosmic fantasy world. He is fixated on a light in the sky. Any light. The ‘alien visitor’ angle holds more promise as a reference point from which a waterfall of life’s repercussions could cascade, especially as Cha See’s lighting design delivers a Twilight Zone vibe more lucid than the drama itself, washing Kate Noll’s detailed, realistic set in amorphous shapes in shades of acid green and yellow.
In the program, playwright John J. Caswell, Jr. explains his goal for this piece: “… the world, as perceived by the diseased mind, often defies logic. And that maybe a defiance of logic is what might finally allow us to make some sense of this.” Laudable an ambition as that is, Wet Brain falls short of both logic and illogic. You can’t just play frenetic trauma at Warp speed for 95 minutes and expect an audience to stick with it. The mind wanders. The drama loses its impact through sheer exhaustion. And I still have no idea what Wet Brain refers to.
Wet Brain, written by John J. Caswell, Jr., directed by Dustin Wills. Set design by Kate Noll, lighting design by Cha See, sound design by Tei Blow and John Gasper and costume design by Haydee Zelideth Antuñano. With Frankie J. Alvarez, Ceci Fernández, Florencia Lozano, Julio Monge and Arturo Luís Soria.
Produced by Playwright’s Horizons and MCC Theater, on the Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street), running May 19 – June 25th. For tickets go to www.playwrightshorizons.org. Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission.