After you’ve seen as many dysfunctional families plays as this critic has, you may begin to doubt the absolute truth of Tolstoy’s famous maxim that each unhappy family is unique. They tend to blur together and you can’t tell one weepy clan stage saga from another. The woes of the Hispanic, Arizona-based family in John J. Caswell, Jr.’s surprisingly spicy, funny and gut-wrenching play Wet Brain, a co-production of Playwrights Horizons and MCC Theater, may be familiar, but the way Caswell conveys their fractured dynamic is inventive and different.
As you may glean from the title, alcoholism and other substances open for abuse are at the heart of the characters’ trauma. Father Joe (heartbreaking Julio Monge) is an incoherent mess thanks to years of booze swilling. Macho elder son Ron (appropriately bullish Frankie J. Alvarez), similarly overindulging in weed, has been kicked out by his wife Ava and now stays with his dad and goes through the daily motions of getting him ready for work in the family auto repair shop. Gay younger son Ricky (funny Arturo Luís Soria) has returned home after being discharged from a high-paying corporate job for a drug habit. His connection with Joe was seriously damaged because his dad did nothing to protect him when the mechanics in the shop beat Ricky up. Daughter Angelina (tender and tough Ceci Fernández), who has been caring for her father for years, yearns to break free and pursue a career in nursing. She occasionally falls off the wagon, “but I’m nothing like you guys,” she chides her brothers. As if all this angst weren’t enough, mother Mona committed suicide by hanging herself from the kitchen ceiling fan.
An initial reaction might be, “Oh no, here we go again without another messed-up family.” But Caswell leavens the tragedy with wild humor and injects a fascinating fantastical twist. The play opens with Joe drunkenly stumbling in the darkness, and then he’s shockingly abducted by presumably alien forces. (Cha See’s otherworldly lighting and Tei Blow and John Gasper’s eerie sound design create an unsettling, spooky atmosphere.) As the family troubles unfold, Caswell gradually reveals Joe’s outer-space captors are really a metaphor for his hidden, unexpressed emotions.
The extraterrestrial motif is subtly accentuated by little touches such as Angelina wearing a Lost in Space T-shirt (a series about a family cast adrift) and media like The Outer Limit and Space Jam playing on the TV. Finally, the family confronts its demons in a weird therapy session as Kate Noll’s amazing set seems to turn inside out, transforming the compact desert home into a skewed-perspective space ship hurtling through the cosmos and into the characters’ collective subconscious. Even the dead Mona (compassionate, prickly Florencia Lozano) comes back to life to counsel her husband and kids. Lozano later shows up as Joe’s new no-nonsense caregiver, in a final touching moment.
Dustin Wills’ subtle direction perfectly balances kitchen-sink realism with the bizarre elements creating an endearingly off-kilter, but ultimately healing family drama, unlike any other.