theater review

The Bedwetter Is a Real Story About Pain and Pee

Photo: Hudson Valley Theater Photographer

You may think I’m just an average kinda girl
Well here’s something that no one knows
Though I can’t sing like Aretha
I’ve got a cool urethra
That can soak a mattress faster than a garden hose

Sarah Silverman’s autobiographical(ish) The Bedwetter deals with a rocky time in the younger Sarah’s life. The musical itself is rocky too — dramatizing a 10-year-old’s emotional breakdown in song poses difficulties for the stage. Silverman has been frank about her issues with childhood incontinence and depression: According to her memoir, also called The Bedwetter, she had nighttime accidents well into her middle teens, and was put on Xanax when she was still in grade school. She started out funny — she just didn’t start out happy.

Serial humiliation can wreck a person, but when she was a kid, Silverman survived by hammering her shame into armor. Like many comics, she deploys discomfort; as a stand-up and writer, Silverman became a connoisseur of cringe and confession. There was one awkwardness even she hadn’t yet dared though, so she and co-writer Josh Harmon and composer-lyricist Adam Schlesinger decided to turn her memoir into something totally embarrassing … a musical.

Or they started. The tonally delicate project, which requires a balance between Silverman’s sparky profanity and night-black despair, doesn’t feel quite finished, even though it is premiering at the Atlantic Theater. There is a bleak, terrible reason for that: Schlesinger — the beloved songwriter behind musical Cry-Baby, the television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and his band Fountains of Wayne — died of COVID early in the pandemic. The show has not replaced him, working instead with composer David Yazbek as a consultant, and the resulting musical has a hiccupping quality that might be a result of this stopped-short collaboration.

In New Hampshire in the ’80s, 10-year-old Sarah (Zoe Glick) is trying to stay positive. Her parents are recently divorced: Mom Beth Ann (Caissie Levy) is bedridden with depression, and dad Donald (Darren Goldstein) seems upbeat, cheeriest when he’s singing in cheeseball TV ads for his discount clothing store. He keeps busy at work by shtupping the moms who come in to shop (“Looking at the numbers the results I’ve seen is / twelve percent of customers enjoy my penis”), and Sarah adoringly repeats every f-bomb and dirty joke she hears him make. She’s lonely at her new school underneath the wisecracks: Her sister, Laura (Emily Zimmerman), finds her little sister’s wackiness annoying, and their nana (Bebe Neuwirth) tries to help out, but her alcoholism adds to the sense of a fractured foundation.

Sarah impresses her new fifth-grade classmates with her fart-focused humor, but the other girls eventually reject her when the bedwetting thing, uh, leaks. Shocked into a depressive episode, little Sarah has the same breakthrough real Sarah did — an ex-Miss New Hampshire (Ashley Blanchet) goes on the Johnny Carson (Rick Crom) Show and tells America that she used to be a bedwetter herself. For adults and child actors alike, the language is blue, the humor is crass. But this is actually all part of Silverman’s message — if you can find farting funny, it’s not so far to finding your own body funny, your own weaknesses funny, even the terrible condition of life on Earth … funny.

It’s an issue, therefore, that Anne Kauffman’s production doesn’t develop much extra amusement. Laura Jellinek’s glum set consists of big pivoting walls with occasional additions: a lonely shelf with a globe on it (to place us at school) or a hospital bed (you get it). This colorless interchangeability runs counter to the show’s certainty that Sarah’s home life is unusual. During the musical, Sarah visits a friend, goes to her mom’s house, invites her friends over to her dad’s, and all three interiors are identical. One fifth-grader is shocked by Donald Silverman’s living room: “It’s even more divorced than I imagined,” she marvels. That’s a great line — but what is she seeing? Why doesn’t the show make a visual joke here? In general, there are too few of these. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are witty (I had forgotten just how prevalent the puffy Laura Ingalls shoulder was in the ’80s), and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections add some interesting chaos, but the overall impression is of a design at war against itself, too many of its elements quarreling or maybe sulking.

This dampened quality extends to the actors’ bodies. Even in those big open spaces, Kauffman’s cast doesn’t move very much. Mom’s stuck in bed, Nana rarely budges from her chair. The golden-voiced Levy and Neuwirth’s characters are so underused that the imbalance snowballs into meaning — beware, the musical says, even the most talented women in the world (and the most famous women in this show) can get sidelined.

The other adults do offer the key pleasures of The Bedwetter. Goldstein is wonderful as Donald, particularly when he tries to ease his jeans into an Elvis lunge (he never gets there), and Blanchet is indispensable as Miss New Hampshire, gliding through with her blank-eyed assurances that you get over bedwetting but depression is forever. (Smile and wave, smile and wave.) Crom is terrific as Carson and as various doctors, all of whom succumb to their own terrible pressures. These grown-ups are the show pillars, but a ton still rests on the suspendered shoulders of little Zoe Glick, and she bears up well — her depressive turn in the second half is beautifully performed.

But the show needs more of the real Sarah Silverman — her voice, her looseness, her slangy, casual, great-on-a-podcast energy. Of course, that breezy sense of improvisation only comes after plenty of workshopping, radical tear-it-up-til-it-works stuff. She and Kauffman and Harmon and, possibly, a new songwriter would need to go back in, hammer and tongs. So will they? The Bedwetter in its current awkward state does have charm; Bebe Neuwirth drawls “There is no God”; it’s sold out; it’s good. But I’m going to embarrass myself and say I hope they keep refining because The Bedwetter is important enough to fix till it’s great. The show is honest about what befalls us when we’re 10 (“Ugh, I was so young and naïve when I was 9,” sings Sarah) in a way few other artworks are. It introduces real-world, complex problems that don’t get solved by the final curtain, yet it proposes a viable game plan for survival anyway. It rips up a couple of irritating proprieties — pisses on them, actually. So I’m hoping there is a further form and shape for The Bedwetter, a weirder, wilder, more biting one than this. It must be hard to keep developing, since grief about Schlesinger’s loss must be part of their process now. But someday — the show swears this is true they’ll be able to joke about it.

The Bedwetter is at the Atlantic Theater Company through July 3.

The Bedwetter Is a Real Story About Pain and Pee