Atlantic Theater’s The Bedwetter Shines Above and Beyond its Shame. I Swear. And So Does This Show. A Lot.

Ellyn Marie Marsh (Mrs. Dembo, center) with (l-r) Charlotte MacLeod (Abby), Zoe Glick (Sarah), Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis (Ally) and Margot Weintraub (Amy) in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of The Bedwetter.
Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: ATC’s The Bedwetter

By Ross

Sarah is one strange duck. She really is, and I’m not talking about the real life Sarah Silverman, who, I must admit is pretty friggin awesome. I’m talking about the one taking center stage off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater. That Sarah, as portrayed most deliciously by the very talented Zoe Glick, (Broadway’s Frozen), had me at hello, basically. The way she just walks out, well, it’s completely captivating, and Glick finds her spotlight as a younger version of that same comedian who wrote the autobiography, “The Bedwetter”, on which this musical is based. Not the adult version we are all accustomed to seeing on the screen in such shows as the Emmy nominated “The Sarah Silverman Project“, or the 2003 film, ‘School of Rock‘ and the 2011 Sarah Polley film, ‘Take This Waltz‘. But a fascinatingly fresh, fictionalized young pre-teen version of Silverman, walking out boldly into the spotlight to introduce herself to her new classmates, and in turn, to us. And we know immediately, we can’t get enough. Swear words, and all.

It’s a telling moment, this opening sequence, not just because it is whip-smart funny and pouty-mouthed all rolled up neatly together, much like this musical in its entirety when I saw it in its final few weeks at the Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea. But because we can sense in that first monologue its inner raw truth buried underneath that awkward forever-trying-to-please smile and laugh. It’s so clear, and honest, she and the show. Both. Shining its smart ass with confidence.

Margot Weintraub (Amy), Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis (Ally), Zoe Glick and Charlotte MacLeod (Abby) in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of The Bedwetter.
Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

With lyrics by Adam Schlesinger (Cry Baby) and Sarah Silverman, a book by the playwright Joshua Harmon (Admissions) and Silverman, music by Schlesinger, and with David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit) signed on as creative consultant, The Bedwetter confidently plants its sure-footed, yet foulmouth soul in the year 1980, with a young Sarah, an awkwardly optimistic fifth-grader trying hard to find her place inside a new school in a new town, all because of her parents’ complicated divorce.

From the get-go, this young version of Sarah is completely likable and lovable, from the very first naughty word she utters in front of her wildly inappropriate school teacher, Mrs. Dembo, played fantastically by Ellyn Marie Marsh (Broadway’s The Rose Tattoo), who reminded me of a cross between the equally fantastic Jackie Hoffman and Amy Sedaris’s Jerri Blank, her character in “Strangers with Candy“, all rolled up together and given the title, ‘grade school teacher’. Marsh delivers it wonderfully. Equal to that delicious moment of standup delivered by the young Sarah to her new classmates. It tells you everything you need to know about the flavor of this new musical. It’s going to be littered, most magnificently, with foul-mouthed language and inappropriateness at every turn, and we are all going to find connection and understanding within it all, while laughing our heads off watching it.

The Bedwetter sets the stage almost deviously for something wonderfully tender underneath the jokie facade. But it’s there, sneakily, deep down inside the fabric of that young girl’s discomfort and her desperate need for approval. It’s clear that Sarah is an oddball, but one that embraces it in a people-pleasing kinda way, particularly when she sings a song about just how odd and dorky she is to her new classmates, who are trying their hardest to be pint-sized mean girls to the new girl in town. But the way Glick’s Sarah owns who she is, and regardless of how hard they try, these three girls; Amy (Margot Weintraub), Ally (Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis), and Abby (Charlotte MacLeod), can’t help but start to like her, much like us. But there is one part Sarah can’t bringherself to embrace or sing about. It’s the fact that she is also a bedwetter, something that the real Silverman had to struggle and deal with until the age of 16. That part of herself is something that, when it is suggested she stay for an all-girls sleepover with her newfound friends, fills her with the biggest dose of dread and shame that we have witnessed yet in this seemingly bouncy smily young girl. And it is there, in that darkness where we find the true power and the utter likability of The Bedwetter.

Zoe Glick (Sarah) and Emily Zimmerman (Laura) in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of The Bedwetter.
Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

Up until that moment when the conflict presents itself early on in this catchy musical, I think I actually forgot that this is what this musical is about. It had slipped my mind as I playfully ran alongside this charming tale of a young awkward Sarah trying to discover life in her new school. It was just so charming; bumping up against her forever-embarrassed big sister, Laura, beautifully embodied by Emily Zimmerman (Marriott Theatre’s Elf), serving up cocktails to her deliciously Manhattan-guzzling Nana, a part normally played by Bebe Neuwirth, but perfectly performed that week I was there by her understudy, Elizabeth Ward Land (Broadway’s Memphis), and getting her daily dirty joke from her foul-mouthed dad, Donald, played strongly by Darren Goldstein (Broadway’s The Little Foxes). But there it was in the shape of a round wet circle; a sign of capital S-shame, staining her borrowed sleeping bag in front of her new friends, and no escape from it all. She doesn’t get any help either from her depressive bed-ridden mother, Beth Ann, usually portrayed by Caissie Levy, but this week portrayed wonderfully well by Jessica Vosk (Lincoln Center’s 50th anniversary of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) who didn’t think of giving her the exit plan she actually called out for. Boy, can we empathize with that.

As directed with spice and a sure-footedness by Anne Kauffman (PH’s Marjorie Prime), that moment burnes hard and true, and it’s no surprise that she retreats big-time, staying in bed, much like her mother. That is, until finally, after a few odd ball moments of treatment, Sarah is diagnosed with clinical depression. She is prescribed an overwhelmingly large dose of Xanax by a troubled overzealous shrink, played wildly by Rick Crom (Broadway’s Urinetown), who, after a strangely hypnotic dance break, lightly choreographed by Byron Easley (Broadway’s Slave Play), with singing pills and sexy nurses spinning around them all, abandons her in the harshest way possible. It’s hard to believe, but this part is actually true to the real life Sarah. I swear.

The rest of the show plays out with as much heart and compassion as the first part played for laughs. The Bedwetter refuses to pull any punches, but doesn’t become too much either. Schlesinger’s compellingly fun songs drive the piece forward with a balance, in a naturally fun smart way, with stellar moments for all, while never losing its way. There’s plenty of laughs here, but it also latches itself completely onto our heart with compassion and understanding. It never feels like it talks down to us or the problems put forward, but takes them both serious and with a touch of smart-assed-ness, if that is a word. But it should be, as it feels about right for The Bedwetter.

Zoe Glick (Sarah) and Darren Goldstein (Donald) in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of The Bedwetter.
Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

The cast is forever digging up depth and emotional connection, particularly Glick’s Sarah and the young Zimmerman as the older sister – a character which I am told is a melting together of Silverman’s three actual sisters. Her second act song about missing how annoying Sarah’s oddball-ness can be hits just the right amount of honesty and care, just like Ashley Blanchet (Broadway’s Beautiful) does as the helpful and funny Miss New Hampshire, both in the real world and in her wet dreams. In this realm, The Bedwetter never really falters, balancing the two frameworks with a surprising wit and ease. Maybe this has something to do with the very sad knowledge that Schlesinger never got to see this show rise up in full production after New York City went into COVID lockdown in March 2020, causing the show to pause in the middle of rehearsals. Then weeks later, on April 1st, 2020, Adam Schlesinger, the musical’s composer suddenly died from that very thing that closed down the theatres and his rehearsals. Because this musical does find its way to treat the emotional journey of this child with the solid compassion that it truly deserves, as well as almost every other character on that stage. And that is a beautiful legacy.

Yet, on a somewhat clunky set, designed by Laura Jellinek (Broadway’s Oklahoma!), with lighting designed by Japhy Weideman (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), costumes by Kaye Voyce (Broadway’s True West), and sound designed by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Head Over Heels), The Bedwetter delivers on its f*#king promise, rising up loud and crude while displaying honest heart and a true alignment of character and attachment. I’m not sure it’s going to get the same treatment as the less crass but equally wonderful Kimberly Akimbo, which is transferring soon from that same stage to Broadway in the fall, but I do hope it finds its own very unique road to further success. The show is, very deserving of more as it always knows the joke inside, but also is very aware of the clever heart that beats somewhere just underneath the punchline.

Bebe Neuwirth (Nana) and Zoe Glick (Sarah) in Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of The Bedwetter, a new musical with a book by Drama Desk Award winner Joshua Harmon and Emmy Award winner Sarah Silverman, lyrics by Emmy Award winner Adam Schlesinger and Sarah Silverman, music by Adam Schlesinger, choreography by Byron Easley, and direction by Lucille Lortel Award winner Anne Kauffman. The production opened on June 7, 2022 at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street).
Photo Credit: Ahron R. Foster

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s