‘Wet Brain’ Off Broadway Review: When Too Much Vodka Is the Least of the Problems

Playwright John J. Caswell Jr. and director Dustin Wills blow up a nuclear family to great effect

Frankie J. Alvarez and Arturo Luís Soria in "Wet Brain" (Credit: Joan Marcus)
Frankie J. Alvarez and Arturo Luís Soria in "Wet Brain" (Credit: Joan Marcus)

The Playbill bio for director Dustin Wills includes a most interesting piece of info: It reveals that for a couple of years, he gave rogue tours of the Vatican.

After seeing his production of John J. Caswell Jr.’s bizarre new play, “Wet Brain,” I can only hope that Wills will one day resume those tours of the pope’s place. I’d be the first to buy a plane ticket to Rome to hop aboard such an unorthodox excursion. His inspired direction of Caswell’s play is a wild ride, and the play itself, “Wet Brain,” which had its world premiere Thursday at Playwrights Horizons Tuesday, gives this gifted director plenty of opportunities to go completely off the rails in a very good way.

It’s an understatement to say that Wills and Caswell have some help from set designer Kate Noll. Her living room set, which literally turns itself inside out, is worth the price of admission.

Every bit as crazy is the family of five that has been reduced to four when Mom (Florencia Lozano) dies by suicide by hanging herself from a ceiling fan. Awash in vodka, Dad (Julio Monge) is now as loopy as he is incontinent, and little sister Angelina (Ceci Fernandez) and big brother Ron (Frankie J. Alvarez) are tired of taking care of him. Meanwhile, gay brother Ricky (Arturo Luis Soria), the tragic middle child, pursues a successful career somewhere outside of Scottsdale, Arizona.

And then there’s the matter of Caswell’s script. Spoiler alert: “Wet Brain” may contain the funniest line uttered in any new play this year or last, and that comes when Ron tells Ricky, “I was homophobic way before you turned gay and I’m supposed to change?” The play’s dialogue is loaded with such gems whose sick logic sucks us into the thinking of this troubled family. Such wicked talk requires performances that are as loud as they are big, and Wills gets them from each member of his extraordinary ensemble.

Caswell does with his family of misfits what David Lindsay-Abaire does with his family in “Kimberly Akimbo,” but in taking them much further into states of dementia, he makes a couple of missteps at the end. When the two sons decide to make amends, it weakens the play with back-to-back moments of sentimental forgiveness. One of the beauties of “Kimberly Akimbo,” the play and the musical, is that Lindsay-Abaire’s family never reforms. They’re as terrible at the start as they are at the end. Then again, Caswell’s family begins in a much lower place of despair and squalor, all laughs and theatrical derring-do aside.

The new theater season in New York has gotten off to a terrific start with four incredible world premieres: “Primary Trust” at the Roundabout, “The Comeuppance” at Signature Theatre, “Days of Wine and Roses” at the Atlantic and now “Wet Brain” at Playwrights Horizons, which partners with MCC here. There have been whole seasons that haven’t seen this much great new theater.

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