My 13-year-old daughter would love The Bedwetter. Thirteen-year-olds of all ages will find something to enjoy in The Bedwetter, despite the alleged discernment of maturity. There’s been pearl-clutching about its potty-mouthed musical antics and they would be a shock if this was some sort of bio-show about someone like, say, Shirley Temple. But it’s based on the autobiographical musings of Sarah Silverman, whose trademark is salacious sentimentality, as anyone who tuned into Comedy Central’s The Sarah Silverman Program (raises hand) can attest.

That’s kind of a problem, as anyone who knows her shtick will find nothing new here, and somewhere in the second act The Bedwetter starts leaking. (You knew the puns were coming.) It is however nice to have the “old” Silverman back. Now in her fifties she’s adjusted her persona somewhat in the fifteen years since the show began airing and her unfiltered self, revisited in utero as it were, offers plenty of laughs. (The series is available on Paramount Plus if you’re looking for something to watch now that you’ve ponied up for the first hour of last week’s Tonys.)

If you are for whatever reason unfamiliar or taken aback by Silverman’s cringey antics, well, what are you doing at a musical named The Bedwetter? Loosely set in the Eighties this is the origins story of a 10-year-old girl who was “working blue,” as they say, long before she hit the comedy clubs, and no names have been changed to protect the innocent. Sarah (Zoe Glick) is going to a new school in a new town in her native New Hampshire but she can’t leave her family troubles behind. Well-adjusted older sister Laura, here and on the show Sarah’s foil (played by Emily Zimmerman), would rather not deal with her sibling, whose big and dirty mouth gets her in trouble, despite her ever-innocent delivery.

There’s no grownup to wash it out with soap as she shuttles between households. Mom Beth Ann (Caissie Levy), recently divorced from dad Donald (Darren Goldstein), spends every waking hour depressed in bed, watching the likes of All About Eve on TV and complaining (not unreasonably) that the host favors Marilyn Monroe over Thelma Ritter. Donald, the proprietor of a discount clothing store, is similarly horizontal between the sheets, if not alone. (When not leveraging his minor celebrity from TV commercials into chick-magnetizing older babes he tells his adored younger daughter off-color jokes, which hardly improves Sarah’s lot with her teachers and fellow classmates.) Beloved Nana (Bebe Neuwirth), Don’s mother, approves whatever Sarah wants to do, so long as the fifth grader plies her with perfect Manhattans. That the clan is Jewish adds to Sarah’s outsiderdom–but when she finally gets a chance to join the in club at school her nocturnal issue pours warm water over her prospects. 

Scripted by Silverman and the acerbic Joshua Harmon (the author of Bad Jews and last season’s Drama Desk winner Prayer for the French Republic), the book maintains a sweetly savage wit throughout its first act, with the 14-year-old Glick giving a formidable performance as Sarah, a little bit imitation but very much a flesh-and-pee characterization in its own right. (She and the excellent Levy, who portrayed a much different mother in the recent Caroline, or Change revival, shared the stage in Frozen and generate a nice familial bond.) But The Bedwetter develops an affliction of its own–stuttering–at about the time shrinks and hypnotists enter the scene with quack cures for Sarah’s condition (she spends a stretch as a Xanax zombie) and the fantasy figure of Miss New Hampshire (Ashley Blanchet) pops up to dispense wisdom from the TV, as the family inches toward confronting suppressed trauma. Director Anne Kauffman can’t parse the different strands of the increasingly episodic material, and it ends abruptly, as if a scene or two were dropped. (A merely functional design is equally unengaging.)

And there was really no need for this to be a musical, a problem shared with Mr. Saturday Night. There’s nothing wrong with the songs, which speak to the eclecticism of music writer and co-lyricist (with Silverman) Adam Schlesinger, an early casualty of COVID as The Bedwetter entered a particularly difficult pandemic purgatory. But standouts are few, with Goldstein getting the stand-up-and-cheer haymaker, a family-unfriendly ditty about his tomcatting. That said it’s lovely to see Neuwirth, Chicago‘s once and forever Roxie Hart, in the intimate confines of the Atlantic Theater Company; with her perfect pitch and comic timing it’s like watching close-up magic. Urinetown The Bedwetter isn’t–but thanks to its cast and Silverman’s obscene talent it doesn’t shit the bed, either.

About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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