By: David Sheward
June 16, 2022: As you might expect, any musical from the pen of the notoriously profane comedienne Sarah Silverman has more than its share of what we used to call dirty jokes. But The Bedwetter (Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater), the new musical based on Silverman’s memoir of her traumatic childhood, is also an insightful and moving depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics, a little girl’s triumph over insecurity and the healing power of comedy. It’s also pretty damn funny.… and dirty.
Ten-year-old Sarah (precociously talented Zoe Glick) is starting at a new school in 1980s New Hampshire after her parents have divorced. Her depressed, movie-obsessed mother Beth Ann (magnificently complex Caissie Levy) won’t get out of bed because of the breakup and the long-ago crib death of Sarah’s baby brother. Her older sister Laura (appropriately snide Emily Zimmerman) refuses to speak to her at school. Her dad Donald (riotously crude but loving Darren Goldstein) is sleeping around and her grandma (wry Bebe Neuwirth) is an alcoholic. (Bonus: Nana is teaching her how to mix the perfect Manhattan.) But her biggest problem is that she still wets the bed, preventing her from attending sleepovers and endangering new friendships. All these traumas send Sarah into a tailspin of anxiety and sorrow. Despite the gloom surrounding her and massive prescriptions of anti-depressants, Sarah’s love of performing pulls her through.
Though the plot may sound like an Afterschool Special, the sharp and witty book by Silverman and Joshua Harmon (Admissions, Prayer for the French Republic) is caustic and wise without indulging in syrupy sentiment. The songs are equally double-edged. The snappy music by Adam Schlesinger and intricate, funny lyrics by Schlesinger and Silverman satirize musical-comedy and feel-good movie conventions while genuinely expressing inner turmoil. For example, in one fantastically staged sequence, a TV jingle for Donald’s cut-rate clothing store becomes a riotous examination of his marriage’s breakdown.
Like that innovative number, the rest of Anne Kaufman’s staging is a weirdly satisfying mix of sketch comedy, realistic scenes, and musical nuttiness. One minute we’re witnessing a painful moment between father and daughter in a doctor’s office as they discuss the root of her nocturnal urination dilemma, the next a chorus line of tranquilizers played by three tween girls bursts through the curtains and the manic doctor leads everyone in a tribute to the joys of sedatives. (Kaye Voyce did the clever costumes and Laura Jellinek created the versatile set.)
Young Zoe Glick is a marvel as the afflicted but hilariously hyper Sarah. She captures the girl’s raunchy humor and desperate longing for stability, while launching zingers with the timing worthy of a veteran adult stand-up. Caissie Levy is heartbreaking as Beth Ann, Sarah’s overwhelmed mother and Darren Goldstein finds the tenderness under the asshole exterior of her caring but emotionally clumsy dad Donald. Bebe Neuwirth is martini-dry as the cocktail-loving grandma and Emily Zimmerman captures sister Laura’s conflicted affections. Ellyn Marie Marsh as a dictatorial teacher, Rick Crom as a pair of neurotic doctors, and Ashley Blanchet as a fantasy beauty queen garner guffaws in brilliant cameos. Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis, Charlotte MacLeod, and Margot Weintraub display professional zest and sharp snark as a trio of middle-school mean girls. Bravo to all these Bedwetters.
The Bedwetter ****
June 7—July 3. Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th St., NYC. Tue 7pm; Wed 2pm & 8pm; Thu 7pm; Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 8pm. Running time: two hours including intermission. $86.50. www.ovationtix.com. Photography: Ahron R. Foster