Sarah Silverman’s life makes for a leaky musical

New musical The Bedwetter, based on comedian Sarah Silverman’s memoir, isn’t as tight as a fitted sheet.

The potential of the convoluted show, which opened Tuesday night’s Off-Broadway at The Atlantic Theater Company, abounds, particularly in its central idea: that to achieve the mile-in-minute mind of a 10-year-old, he Waking up with wet pajamas can feel as emotionally traumatic as an adult struggling with divorce or depression. Life sucks, even at 10.

The Bedwetter uses little Sarah’s late-night troubles as a revealing window into the struggles of the eccentric adults in her family.

theater criticism

2 hours with one break. Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St.

This intelligent setting just begs for a bold and moving musical. So why does it come off so light and timid?

Holding back the show the most is an understandable mistake, considering the play is about a famous person: there’s way too much Sarah in it.

Opening, the exuberant and proudly quirky girl (Zoe Glick) arrives on her first day at a new school in Bedford, New Hampshire, and introduces her family in upbeat songs.

Her pop (Darren Goldstein, perfectly cast) owns Crazy Donny’s Factory Outlet, a discount women’s clothing store; her old Hollywood-obsessed mother, Beth Ann (Caissie Levy), spends most of her time in bed and is rocked by tragedy; her teenage sister Laura (Emily Zimmerman) is too embarrassed to even make eye contact with Sarah; and Nana (Bebe Neuwirth, miscast) is a bitter alcoholic who has her granddaughter Manhattans whipped up. Sarah grins and bears it, saying a lot of “f-k” and making fart noises.

Sarah (Zoe Glick) and Laura move to Bedford, New Hampshire "The bedwetter."
Sarah (Zoe Glick) and Laura (Emily Zimmerman) move to Bedford, New Hampshire in The Bedwetter.
Ahron R Foster

Comparisons to “Fun Home,” another autobiographical musical about children the same age with an unusual family dynamic, are inevitable. However, while that show delved deep into the tumultuous life of Alison Bechdel’s parents, “Bedwetter” is mostly a light young-adult-style story about Sarah. We don’t delve nearly enough into her family, and when we do, it’s casual and fleeting.

Also the humor isn’t so out of the way to give other characters the cold shoulder.

In the book of Silverman and Joshua Harmon’s musical, nothing is quite as hilarious as their stand-up or the fabulous “Sarah Silverman Program.” And the jingle-like tunes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s songwriter Adam Schlesinger, who sadly passed away from COVID in 2020, don’t bring laughs like Jimmy Kimmel Live’s “I’m F–king Matt Damon” or Nobody’s Perfect ‘ from Silverman’s music-heavy special Jesus Is Magic.

Nana (Bebe Neuwirth) drinks non-stop and makes a joke out of it.
Nana (Bebe Neuwirth) drinks non-stop and makes a joke out of it.
Ahron R Foster

Most of the fun is summoned in Act 1 (the booze gags are grating). Then, in the second half, after Sarah’s friends (Charlotte MacLeod, Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis, and Margot Weintraub) discover her bedwetting secret and a carefree doctor prescribes her Xanax for her breakouts, she becomes a shell of herself. A ghost. Nana and Beth Ann recognize their grief and tell at length about the difficult paths they have also walked. The show is finally about something – but it’s too late.

Climbing steeper hills than the script intended are Anne Kauffman’s clueless direction and Laura Jellinek’s flimsy sketches. The Silverman house, Nana’s residence, school, and a hospital room are all identical except for a bed here and a desk there. Bland walls rotate to reveal duller walls with a single sad shelf holding a few trophies or a TV. For the theater that has seen Tony-winners for best musical like Spring Awakening and The Band’s Visit, as well as Broadway’s upcoming Kimberly Akimbo, this set is surprisingly dowdy and characterless.

The musical's most poignant moments include Caissie Levy as Sarah's mother, Beth Ann.
The musical’s most poignant moments include Caissie Levy as Sarah’s mother, Beth Ann.
Ahron R Foster

Kauffman, a pro at bringing new plays to the stage, lacks musical theater skills. The numbers (choreographed by Byron Easley) seem improvised at the last minute. And when characters speak, they’re often propped up against a wall at the side of the stage, half visible, and don’t land jokes because the jokes weren’t constructed visually or kept at the right pace.

The most poignant and attention-grabbing scenes come from Levy, partly because of her candid portrayal of a person in immense pain, but also because the bed she sits in is the focal point. We can see them fully.

There are three great comic performances: Goldstein nodding his head during a cheesy ’80s commercial for Crazy Donny’s is a hoot; Rick Crom plays some mad doctors and plays Johnny Carson just right; and Ashley Blanchet plays the amazing Miss New Hampshire.

But they’re all hampered by a production that’s barely halfway through. The neglected “bedwetter” needs Pampers. Uh, sorry – pampering.

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