BY Kevin Champoux in Opinion | 15 JUN 23

The Shallow Explosions of John Caswell Jr.’s ‘Wet Brain’

The new play, on at Playwrights Horizons, New York, relies too heavily on pop-psychological tropes of trauma and its acknowledgement

BY Kevin Champoux in Opinion | 15 JUN 23

Aliens, as we’ve conceived of them, are principally concerned with exploding the world. In the stories we tell about them, they arrive with weapons poised, or a series of miscommunications sets their good intentions awry. Either way, the damage is done before long. Wet Brain (2023), John Caswell Jr.’s new play currently on at Playwrights Horizons, New York (in a co-production with MCC Theater), deploys just about every possible permutation of explosion-as-metaphor, from the press release’s promise of ‘an American family drama’ exploded open, to the announcement upon entering the theatre that there will be flashing lights and loud noises. 

Julio Monge in Wet Brain, 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: Playwrights Horizons and MCC Theater; photograph: Joan Marcus

An older man in dingy clothes approaches through shrouded fog, toting a sack of water bottles. He shouts accusingly at a streetlamp in the strained gibberish of an alcoholic whose disease robs him of language – and most other faculties. We are in the ‘shitty part of Scottsdale’, in the unkempt house where Joe (Julio Monge) raised his three children as a single father after his wife (Florencia Lozano) died years earlier. The kids – now troubled adults – have all inherited their father’s struggles with substance abuse. Their vices and attendant coping mechanisms are alluded to in rapid-fire dialogue that ensues when the middle child, Ricky (Arturo Luís Soria), returns from New York. He long ago committed the class betrayal specific to gay men fleeing working-class homes for the big city, working a high-paying job that allows him to subcontract out the familial duties shirked in his absence. Angelina (Ceci Fernández) and Ron (Frankie J. Alvarez) stayed behind to act, respectively, as live-in caregiver and as manager of the family auto shop, though they can no longer get by on their own now that Angelina has decided to move out. In their cutting banter, the three actors richly reveal the push-pull of an entrenched sibling dynamic: they resent each other for their estrangement while nonetheless fearing the congenital doom that this fraught reunion portends.  

For in addition to their terrestrial anxieties, the family members are also plagued with recurring nightmares (Ricky dreams of explosions), strange physical symptoms (Angelina says her heart stops when she sleeps) and lapsed memories. Some supernatural malevolence seems inscribed in the house itself. There are sudden flares of sickly green light, strange voices coming through the television set, a family room no one dares enter. It’s something imperceptible or, in Joe’s case, inexpressible. ‘He sees thing we don’t see,’ Angelina says of her father who reacts in mute terror alongside his oblivious children and claws at his belly as if trying to remove something lodged under his skin.

Julio Monge and Ceci Fernández in Wet Brain, 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: Playwrights Horizons and MCC Theater; photograph: Joan Marcus

What remains inexpressible is, of course, a reckoning with decades of abuse and childhood trauma, one that each family member assiduously avoids through their alcohol and drug use and binge eating, accompanied by a dense volley of barbed insults and guarded wisecracks. Language is the real barrier here: the well-worn evasions and defences that likely enabled the siblings to survive until now are also the very things preventing them from unsticking their lives and overcoming their addictions. And so, the language has got to go, too, and we reach the reality-shattering explosion we were promised when, in the third act, the play literally changes our perspective, peering down from above at the family room-cum-spaceship where the whole family (including a resurrected Mom) has been transported. Affectless and freed from attachment, as if in some kind of intergalactic ketamine therapy session, they are now able to say what they always meant to say and ask the questions to which they’ve long feared the answers.

Wet Brain, 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: Playwrights Horizons and MCC Theater; photograph: Joan Marcus

Caswell may have found it necessary to dismantle his carefully crafted realism in order to reach some new emotional territory, but what that place is and what we’re meant to bring back with us is harder to parse. That the language on the other side of reality should resemble a therapeutic judgement-free zone reveals the ethos at play here: one which champions intelligibility but often mistakes trauma’s revelation for its resolution. The now-ubiquitous trauma narrative has found a salient accomplice in genre fiction, whose existing metaphors have opened up to it with ease. It is hard, for instance, to think of a contemporary horror movie that hasn’t ripped off the mask to reveal inherited trauma as the ultimate culprit, and whose denouement relies on its precise acknowledgment. The horror has been relocated firmly in the past and all narrative in this mould must proceed in medias res, working backwards from the foundational trauma and towards the present moment. When, at the end of their hallucinatory journey, the family discover that none of them will remember it, Ricky asks, rightly, ‘then what was the purpose?’ The answer we’re given short-changes the story’s own expansive metaphor, capitulating with a shrug to the tepid truisms of self-help literature. The spaceship has not actually taken us very far off the ground.

Wet Brain runs until 2 July 2023 at Playwrights Horizons, New York

Main Image: Wet Brain, 2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: Playwrights Horizons and MCC Theater; photograph: Joan Marcus

Kevin Champoux is a writer whose essays and fiction have appeared in Art in America, Flash Art, Downtown Critic and Broadcast. He lives in New York.