“The Bedwetter” by Sarah Silverman as a Musical

Photo: Hudson Valley Theater Photographer

You may think I’m just an average girl
Well here’s something nobody knows
Although I can’t sing like Aretha
I have a cool urethra
Who can soak a mattress faster than a garden hose?

The (ish) autobiography of Sarah Silverman Bedwetting deals with a difficult period in the life of young Sarah. The musical itself is also gritty – dramatizing a 10-year-old’s emotional breakdown in song poses challenges for the stage. Silverman has been candid about her problems with childhood incontinence and depression: according to her memoir, also called Bedwetting, she had nocturnal accidents until her mid-teens and was put on Xanax while still in elementary school. She started funny – she just didn’t start happy.

Serial humiliation can destroy a person, but as a child, Silverman survived by hammering her shame into armor. Like many comedians, she deploys an uneasiness; as a stand-up and writer, Silverman has become a connoisseur of grimacing and confession. There was an awkwardness even though she hadn’t dared yet, 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 delicately toned project, which requires balancing Silverman’s sparkling profanity and nighttime desperation, doesn’t seem quite finished, even though it’s premiering at the Atlantic Theater. There’s a dark and terrible reason for that: Schlesinger – the beloved songwriter behind the musical crybaby, TV show Crazy ex-girlfriend and his band Fountains of Wayne – died of COVID at the start of the pandemic. The show hasn’t replaced him, instead working with composer David Yazbek as a consultant, and the resulting musical has a hiccuping quality that may be the result of that interrupted collaboration.

In 1980s New Hampshire, 10-year-old Sarah (Zoe Glick) tries to stay positive. His parents recently divorced: mom Beth Ann (Caissie Levy) is bedridden due to depression, and dad Donald (Darren Goldstein) sounds upbeat and cheerful as he sings in cheeseball TV commercials for his discount clothing store. He keeps himself busy at work knocking off moms who come shopping (“Looking at the numbers, the results I’ve seen are / Twelve percent of customers like my penis”), and Sarah adoringly repeats each bombshell f and dirty joke she hears him make. She’s alone in her new school under the wisecracks: her sister, Laura (Emily Zimmerman), finds her little sister’s craziness annoying, and their girlfriend (Bebe Neuwirth) tries to help her, but her alcoholism adds to the feeling of a fractured foundation.

Sarah impresses her new fifth-grade classmates with her fart-focused humor, but the other girls end up rejecting her when the bedwetting, uh, leaks. Shocked in a depressive episode, little Sarah has the same breakthrough as the real Sarah – an ex-Miss New Hampshire (Ashley Blanchet) goes on the Johnny Carson (Rick Crom) Show and tells America she was herself enuresis. For adults and child actors alike, the tongue is blue, the humor is rude. But that’s all actually part of Silverman’s message — if you can find farting funny, it’s not that far off from finding your own body funny, your own weaknesses funny, even the terrible condition of life on Earth…funny.

So it’s a problem that Anne Kauffman’s production doesn’t develop a whole lot of extra fun. Laura Jellinek’s dark set consists of large swinging walls with occasional additions: a solitary shelf with a globe on it (to place us in school) or a hospital bed (you get it). This colorless interchangeability goes against the show’s certainty that Sarah’s home life is unusual. During the musical, Sarah visits a friend, goes to her mother’s house, invites her friends to her father’s house, and the three interiors are identical. A CM2 student is shocked by Donald Silverman’s living room: “It’s even more divorced than I imagined,” she marvels. It’s a nice line – but what does she see? Why doesn’t the show make a visual joke here? In general, there are too few. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are witty (I’d forgotten how prevalent Laura Ingalls’ puffy shoulder was in the 80s), and Lucy Mackinnon’s splashes add some interesting mayhem, but the overall impression is one of a design at war with itself, too many of its elements quarreling or perhaps sulking.

This muted quality extends to the actors’ bodies. Even in these wide open spaces, Kauffman’s cast doesn’t move much. Mom is stuck in her bed, Nana rarely moves from her chair. The golden-voiced characters of Levy and Neuwirth are so underutilized that the imbalance snowballs in meaning — beware, the musical says, even the most talented women in the world (and the most famous women of this issue) can be discarded.

Other adults provide the key pleasures of Bedwetting. Goldstein is wonderful as Donald, especially when he tries to turn his jeans into Elvis slits (he never does), and Blanchet is indispensable as Miss New Hampshire, slipping with her reassurances the empty eyes you overcome bedwetting but depression is still. (Smile and wave, smile and wave.) Crom is great as Carson and as various doctors, all of whom succumb to their own terrible pressures. These grown-ups are the mainstays of the show, but a ton still rests on little Zoe Glick’s dangling shoulders, and she’s taking it well — her depressive second-half turn is performed beautifully.

But the show needs more of the real Sarah Silverman — her voice, her looseness, her slang, laid-back, genial energy on a podcast. Of course, that airy sense of improvisation only comes after lots of workshops, radical stuff to rip until it works. She and Kauffman and Harmon and, maybe, a new songwriter should come back, hammer and pliers. So will they? Bedwetting in its current clumsy state has charm; Bebe Neuwirth drawls “There is no God”; he’s worn out ; It’s good. But I will embarrass myself and say hopefully they keep refining because Bedwetting is important enough to correct until it is perfect. The show is honest about what happens to us when we’re 10 (“Ugh, I was so young and naive when I was 9,” Sarah sings) like few other works are. It introduces complex real-world problems that aren’t solved by the final curtain, but it still offers a viable game plan for survival. It rips off some irritating properties – pisses on them, in fact. So I hope there is an additional shape and form for Bedwetting, a stranger, wilder, more biting than this. It must be difficult to continue to grow, because the grief of the loss of Schlesinger must now be part of their process. But one day – the show sworn this is right they can joke about it.

Bedwetting is at the Atlantic Theater Company until July 3.

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