Sarah Silverman’s pungently irreverent and profane brand of comedy makes the leap into musical theatre with her funny but uneven new show, The Bedwetter.
If a fifth grader belting about pee and impersonating Oscar winner Sally Field cutting the cheese makes you LOL, then you may really, really like this Atlantic Theater Company production. There’s more bathroom humor on tap — considering the title, of course there is.
Drawn from Silverman’s 2010 memoir, the taboo-toppling star is all over the stage adaptation. She co-authored the book with playwright Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews, Prayer for the French Republic) and co-wrote lyrics with the late composer Adam Schlesinger (Cry-Baby, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). The Band’s Visit Tony winner David Yazbek is credited as a creative consultant.
The two-hour two-act follows 10-year-old Sarah as she struggles to navigate the choppy waters of childhood in Bedford, New Hampshire. Every kid faces challenges. But because she wets the bed and her parents just divorced, plus more heavy family burdens, her hurdles are even higher.
Sarah (Zoe Glick) copes by spewing inappropriate and potty-mouthed humor which she’s too young to really understand. She jokes about men’s bodies and oral sex, being “too Jew-y too ignore,” and even her baby brother who died in a freak accident. She’s a lot.
The first half is essentially “Meet the Silvermans,” whose various issues unfurl. Mom Beth Ann (Caissie Levy) is a depressed near-zombie who watches TV all day from bed. Dad Donald (Darren Goldstein), an ex-bedwetter, runs a discount clothing store when he’s not bedding every woman in town. Nana (Bebe Neuwirth) chain-sips Manhattans. Big sister Laura (Emily Zimmerman) wants Sarah to disappear.
Also in the mix: Sarah’s steely teacher (Ellyn Marie Marsh) and snotty schoolmates (Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis, Charlotte MacLeod, and Margot Weintraub), a Mean Girls-y trio that Sarah eventually wins over. Tip: Don’t underestimate fart jokes as diplomacy. But everything fizzles when Sarah’s soggy secret is discovered.
The tone turns darker in the shaky second act. Sarah sees quacks (Rick Crom) ready to prescribe pills whose own grips on reality are tenuous. Cue life-size dancing Xanax tablets in a cheesy fever dream choreographed by Byron Easley. Sarah’s unlikely ally is Miss New Hampshire (Ashley Blanchet), who pops in to lend support. (She and the Diana Ross character in Trevor feel like kindred spirits.)
Balancing and blending the show’s silly and serious split personality is a tricky assignment that exceeds the creative team and director Anne Kauffman’s grasp. The feel-good — well, feel-better — resolution comes off as abrupt and incomplete.
Along the way there are laughs. Songs are chipper and spiky, as expected since comedic numbers are among Schlesinger’s specialties. But there’s a nagging sameness to the score, and it starts to sound like musical wallpaper. Beth Ann’s two big sobering songs stand apart. They’re part of a growing musical theatre subgenre: troubled mom songs. Dear Evan Hansen and Jagged Little Pill are recent shows that also have them.
Design-wise, the show checks boxes efficiently enough. Laura Jellinek’s panels and partitions shift to reveal various locales. Kaye Voyce’s costumes range from street clothes to pageant-wear. Japhy Weideman’s lighting helps set the mood.
Levy, fresh from a mom role in Caroline, or Change, impressively squeezes her solos for every drop of feeling. Neuwirth’s performance, like Nana’s suit, is beige, but she has one great moment that helps compensate. As Sarah, Glick shoulders the show with a gutsy star turn.
The Bedwetter ultimately delivers a message about the powers of streaming your truth. The show is flawed but fun, and it feels at home off Broadway.
Photo credit: Bebe Neuwirth and Zoe Glick in The Bedwetter. (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)