Review: Sarah Silverman's Hilarious and Heartfelt Bedwetter Becomes a Tribute to Adam Schlesinger
The comedian's new musical, with a score by the late Fountains of Wayne front man, premieres at the Atlantic Theater Company.
I felt an odd sense of melancholy at the end of The Bedwetter, now receiving a two-year delayed off-Broadway premiere via the Atlantic Theater Company. As the cast ebulliently performs the earworm title song of this hilarious and filthy new musical from comedian Sarah Silverman, I couldn't stop thinking about the one person who wouldn't be able to hear it: the composer.
More than any other show to open this year in New York City, The Bedwetter is directly touched by the tragedy of Covid-19. During what should have been week three of rehearsal back in April 2020, songwriter Adam Schlesinger, he of Fountains of Wayne and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and "That Thing You Do!," died of the virus at age 52.
The specter of his passing hangs over the material, and it's impossible for it not to. Schlesinger should be here to experience the waves of laughter that ripple through the audience when young leading lady Zoe Glick delivers a punchline. He should be here to receive the applause for his effervescent score, which is based in the sound of '80s game shows and jingles. He should be here to keep refining the text with Silverman, co-writer Joshua Harmon, and director Anne Kauffman, because it's almost there; close, but not quite. There's something so lovely and special about this show, and I worry that the creative team won't want to do the work to bring it up to the next level without him.
To some degree, that would be fine. I can think of no better compliment than to say that The Bedwetter, as it stands now, is a charming trifle. Inspired by Silverman's wide-ranging 2010 memoir, she and Harmon focus the story on a series of incidents from her youth. After her parents get divorced, young Sarah (Glick, sporting the most delightfully severe wig I've ever seen) and her family move to Bedford, New Hampshire. Jewish and sarcastic, she's got the soul of an old Borscht Belt comedian, so she clearly doesn't fit in at school. But when she finally makes friends, only one thing stands in 10-year-old Sarah's way. Well, two. Her bedwetting problem, and her inescapable clinical depression.
Both of those traits run in the Silverman family. She inherited the bedwetting from her father, Donald (Darren Goldstein), who now runs a women's discount clothing store and has fucked his way through all his daughter's friend's moms. Her mother, Beth Ann (Caissie Levy), is a Hollywood-obsessed recluse who spends her days in bed watching old movies. And Nana (Bebe Neuwirth) has an alcohol problem. Like most Jewish families, their shared traumas are filled with off-color defense mechanism humor.
There is a universality to this story, of course, but, like Mr. Saturday Night on Broadway, it will be most appreciated by Jews ("I've never been to New York; why does everyone think that?" is young Sarah's frequent, puzzled response when asked what her life was like before she moved to Bedford). Certainly, this Jew appreciated that these Semitic characters are played by Semitic actors, who bring an inherent warmth to the material that gentiles wouldn't with such believable naturalism — as well as the Semitic creative team of Harmon, Kauffman, Schlesinger, and Silverman (off-Broadway's wittiest new law firm), who find the funny in difficult situations, like our people have for generations.
As far as the direction goes, Kauffman is better with her individual actors than she is with the bigger picture. She guides everyone in the cast towards specific, side-splitting performances (especially Rick Crom as an assortment of doctors and Ellyn Marie Marsh as Sarah's brusque teacher), though the images she creates with scenic designer Laura Jellinek leave a lot to be desired. Nothing takes you out of a period piece more than a bunch of stagehands in Covid facemasks rolling scenery on and off.
Thanks to Glick's surprisingly mature and extremely well-controlled performance as Sarah, and Goldstein's riotous but big-hearted turn as her dad, the soul of the show is there. Silverman and Harmon provide some great jokes, too. But clocking in at under two hours, including intermission, they need to flesh out their book a lot more — this is the rare show that would have benefited from being longer so the story arcs could have more dramatic heft. There is a funny and dark musical about grief and depression waving to us here and there, specifically in the second act, and it's yearning to break free.
But without Schlesinger to provide several new songs, particularly for Levy's Beth Ann and Newirth's Nana, who have major intertwined plot lines and yet are relegated to the background, it's hard to go any further. Though David Yazbek is billed as a "creative consultant," to presumably pick up where Schlesinger left off, I'm not sure his sense of humor is a better fit over, say, Schlesinger's frequent collaborator, Rachel Bloom.
I'm sure that Broadway is the goal for The Bedwetter, but it still feels too small and unfinished for that designation right now. With the right kind of revisions, this uproarious and dirty little show could easily find a nice little home in the West 40s. That would be the most fitting tribute to Schlesinger of all.