By Samuel L. Leiter . . .
Don’t get me wrong. I love Sarah Silverman, the comedian. She’s the very model of a modern Mrs. Maisel, using potty-mouthed wit to shoot darts at contemporary shibboleths, and she’s both a true blue Jew (as Rachel Brosnahan is not) and an actual person, not a fictional one. So forgive me for thinking that when I go to a show by Ms. Silverman and Joshua Harmon (Prayer for the French Republic) based on the former’s best-selling childhood memoir of 2011, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, I expect to be pishing—not on my sheets—but in my pants from laughter’s pressure on my bladder.
For the first half-hour or so, I tried, really tried, to respond with something more than a few “duty laughs,” the kind you feel you ought to, out of respect for Ms. Silverman and the hardworking, talented company onstage. But eventually, while being mildly entertained by the goings-on, I realized that, for all its zany efforts, The Bedwetter was much darker and more serious, not to mention schmaltzy, than I expected. So sue me: I thought I was in for a lighthearted romp and I didn’t prepare!
Actually, The Bedwetter, at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, turns out to be a lighthearted romp, but what’s being romped is the not-so-lighthearted story of 10-year-old Sarah (Zoe Glick), a skinny, ugly duckling (although it’s hard to think Ms. Silverman was ever that) living in Bedford, New Hampshire, around 1980. Sarah, for all her cocky jauntiness, is a chronic bed-wetter suffering from clinical depression.
Her divorced, still bickering, but nonetheless loving parents are Beth Ann (Caissie Levy, excellent) and Donald (Darren Goldstein, memorable). The attractive Beth Ann barely leaves her bed, where she obsessively watches old movies and dotes on the stars’ private lives. Perhaps she’s in a funk because of a tragedy years earlier affecting her infant son. Sarah’s robust dad, a serial adulterer, runs a ladies’ discount clothing store, Crazy Donnie’s, which he loudly advertises—Crazy Eddie-style—on TV with two glitzy models at his side.
Donald’s elegant but dryly acerbic mother, Nana (Bebe Neuwirth, always a pleasure) is an alcoholic who likes telling dirty jokes (as do Donald and Sarah). Much as she praises Laura, she hands Sarah only left-handed compliments, as when she sings about her being pretty, pauses, and adds, “to me.” In her eyes, Sarah’s main accomplishment is her ability to mix her a good cocktail. And Sarah’s beautiful, big-haired, older sister, Laura (Emily Zimmerman), a self-conscious eighth-grader, goes out of her way to avoid being associated with her plain-Jane sibling (“I do not know this person” is her mantra) at the new school they joined after they moved to Bedford. Dysfunction may abound among these Silvermans, but don’t be surprised if all works out for the smiling best.
Sarah’s social awkwardness, suggested by her Beatles-style mop and grungy t-shirt and jeans (spot-on costuming by Kaye Voyce), is contrasted with three gentile, American Girl-like classmates, Ally (Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis), Abby (Charlotte MacLeod), and Amy (Margot Weintraub). (Boys play no role here.) Ally, Abby, and Amy switch gears from being cautiously friendly to newcomer Sarah to being all-too-familiar mean girls. They even have a number in which they joyously sing about all the deliciously nasty rumors swirling around the Silvermans.
Then there’s Sarah’s fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Dembo (Ellyn Marie Marsh, playing several other roles as well), intent on suppressing Sarah’s comic gifts at the upcoming school talent show. To her, the school’s greatest talent ever was a girl who became Miss New Hampshire (Ashley Blanchett), although she lost in the Miss America pageant to what sure sounds, in Miss Dembo’s spiteful voice, like “Miss Cuntucky.” Miss NH—sequined gown, tiara, diagonal banner, and all—pops up every now and then to try stealing the show. As for Sarah’s comic ability—an insecure kid’s defense mechanism—it works best on her friends and family, who think she’s hilarious. If fart jokes float your boat, you will too.
Add to this a pair of farcical shrinks (both played by the deep-voiced Rick Crom, who also undertakes other roles), each more fit for a mental institution as a patient than a therapist (one hangs himself).
A good idea of how desperate the two-hour show is for laughs comes when, after a doctor prescribes Xanax for Sarah, we get a hard-to-swallow song and dance (choreography by Byron Easley) with actors dressed as yellow Xanax pills. Another example comes when Donald, describing to Sarah’s friends how he treated their mothers when they shopped at his store, launches into a raunchy number boasting, “I fucked your moms!” I admit to being shocked into laughing by the song’s audacity, but when I thought of the prepubescents in hearing distance I had second thoughts.
Director Anne Kauffman does her best to goose up the dour proceedings, having the actors deliver their lines in exaggerated New Hampshire accents and presenting several supporting adults as very broad caricatures. The sad truth is that this tale of a young girl’s trauma is only intermittently capable of generating amusement on its own. The score, by the late Adam Schlesinger (with Ms. Silverman collaborating on the lyrics), is pleasantly enjoyable but little more, much of it in the vein of expository songs informing us of the background and characters.
Laura Jellinek’s set cleverly uses sliding and rotating walls to create different locales but is not especially eye-catching. Also, with so much cleverness displayed, it’s disappointing a bit more couldn’t be applied so we didn’t see headset-wearing stagehands moving things around. Japhy Weidman uses Ms. Jellinek’s otherwise bland set to create lighting magic, while Kai Harada contributes effective sound design and Lucy McKinnon does the honors on projections.
A program note tells us that the show was inspired by the show’s composer and co-lyricist, Mr. Schlesinger, coming to Ms. Silverman’s house, her book in his hand, shouting, “This is a musical!” After years of development, it was about to begin rehearsals when it was shelved by Covid, which quickly struck Mr. Schlesinger, who died on April 1, 2020. Yet another downbeat note to add to this medley of them.
Photos: Ahron R. Foster