A musical about trauma, fart jokes and incontinence, The Bedwetter, based on Sarah Silverman’s memoir of her New Hampshire childhood, arrives at the Atlantic Theater after a long and terrible delay. In March 2020, as New York City’s theaters closed, the show paused its rehearsals. And then, on 1 April 2020, Adam Schlesinger, the musical’s composer and a founding member of the sportive rock band Fountains of Wayne died, an early casualty of the pandemic’s first wave and the worst possible April Fool’s joke.
This gives The Bedwetter – clever, comic, small-scale splendid – a mournful metatext and a kind of terrible irony. Because The Bedwetter includes many bad jokes, nearly all of them delivered by the 10-year-old Sarah (Zoe Glick, a ball of big pubescent energy), a precocious misfit. And it is also a musical about taking the worst that life gives you, accepting it and moving on. Which is of course what The Bedwetter itself has done.
The show opens in 1980 or thereabouts when Sarah, a fifth-grader, has moved to a new town, a consequence of her parents’ divorce. Her mother, Beth Ann (Caissie Levy), ca n’t get out of bed. Her father, Donald (Darren Goldstein), beds every woman in town. Her big sister, Laura (Emily Zimmerman), disappears into the popular crowd and her grandmother, Nana (Bebe Neuwirth), into the bottom of a glass.
Sarah is a weirdo. And she proud of it, too. She owns her hirsuteness, her dorkiness, her de ella outre fashion sense. Ella she is, she sings, “too Jew-y to ignore” and she has a particular gift for celebrity impressions, at least when it comes to celebrity farts. But Sarah is also a bedwetter, which fills her with shame – even as it empties her of urine. Outed as incontinent in front of her classmates, she retreats from school and receives a diagnosis of clinical depression from an ethically dubious shrink who puts her on a mammoth dose of Xanax – in a number with a chorus of singing and dancing pills – and then kills himself. (This all really happened, except for the dancing tablets.)
Clinical depression isn’t the kind of thing you cure with a ballad. Neither for that matter is bedwetting. (Silverman rarely spent a dry night until she turned 16.) Which means that The Bedwetter, with a book by Silverman and the playwright Joshua Harmon, lacks a traditional narrative arc, ending in a moment of both triumph and inconclusion. Schlesinger’s brisk, bright, pert songs tend to cruise blithely by rather than lodging in the heart or brain. The physical production can feel small for its age, with sets, by Laura Jellinek that twirl around and around like dizzy ballerinas without wholly suggesting bedrooms or classrooms. Byron Easley is credited with the choreography but dancing pills aside, the dance is largely a postscript.
And yet, for all of that, The Bedwetter doesn’t feel slight. Like a good mattress it has both bounce and genuine heft. This owes in part to the knowledge of Schlesinger’s loss of him, but as much or more to what he has left us – an adroit musical that treats the emotional life of a child with the complexity and the seriousness it deserves. And the emotional lives of the adults, too.
Under Anne Kauffman’s direction, no character feels stock. The main cast endows the Silverman family with real psychology and emotional depth. Even the supporting cast – Ashley Blanchet as Miss New Hampshire, Rick Crom as two shrinks, Ellyn Marie Marsh in a variety of roles – locate nuance even in big, broad comedy.
As a musical, it is both quiet and loud, crude and kind, diffuse in its structure, but clear in its aims and lucid in its understanding of psychology and growth. And even if the ending doesn’t really end anything, it still feels like completion, like success. For a show of and about so many bad jokes, that’s one hell of a punchline.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism