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Theatre in Review: The Bedwetter (Atlantic Theater Company)

Zoe Glick. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

First, there's the chorus line of sedatives. In Act II of this new musical, about the spectacularly dysfunctional childhood of comic Sarah Silverman, the ten-year-old heroine is taken to a doctor about her nighttime urinary problems. This cues the production number "Xanax," which goes like this: "Are you dealin' with fears and traumas?/Loaded down with psychotic dramas?/Brought upon by your Dads and Mommas?/Well, Xanax will set you straight." This little ditty is supported by a quartet of dancers in pill costumes and video imagery of tablets falling from the sky like snow in December.

It's a typical moment in this likable, scattered, frequently raunchy show, which uses musical comedy pizzaz, not always successfully, to sell a story shot through with heartbreak. The disconcertingly cheerful ten-year-old Sarah struggles with her parents' divorce, a brace of mean girls, and the shame of bedwetting -- and that's just for openers: Her depressed, TV-addicted mother can't get out of bed; her father, a pudgy, aging lothario and discount clothing salesman, is sleeping with much of his customer base; and her popular sister wants nothing to do with her. The book, by Silverman and Joshua Harmon, includes alcoholism, suicide, and the death of an infant. It's as if the creative team decided to rewrite Next to Normal, this time playing it for laughs.

Surely, Harmon, author of such tart, candid satires as Bad Jews and Admissions, is the right collaborator on a show that explores the roots of Silverman's transgressive comedy. (In fifth grade, she wins over the other kids with her fart imitations.) And The Bedwetter is loaded with riotous jokes, some of them taken from Silverman's routines and almost all of them unprintable here. (Here's a clean one: "What'd the waiter say to the table of Jewish ladies? Is anything alright?") But the writers get tangled up, especially in a first act that jumps all over the place, trying mine their often-tragic material for comedy gold. Similarly, the score -- music by the late Adam Schlesinger, lyrics by him and Silverman -- works overtime presenting the cruelties of fate in upbeat, Broadway-style tunes. (At times one is reminded of Hairspray, a musical that serves up mordant satire with a perfectly innocent face; as The Bedwetter shows, it's nice work if you can get it.) And for all its apparent nerve, whenever it gets too close to real, unappeasable pain -- for example, the bizarre, accidental death of Sarah's three-month-old brother -- the show scurries in the other direction.

Things improve markedly in the second act, when The Bedwetter starts coming to grips with how badly Sarah (and her mother) are clinically depressed and when Sarah and her dad open up, confessing their mutual sadness. But The Bedwetter wears itself thin trying to straddle its conflicting moods; if it wants to go forward, it needs a better balance of laughter and pain, more focused direction, and (in some cases) better songs.

Despite it all, there's plenty of reason to believe that The Bedwetter -- with its priceless gags and kookily uplifting message -- may have a future. (Although Schlesinger, an early victim of the pandemic, is, sadly, no longer with us, David Yazbek has signed on as creative consultant). Anne Kauffman's production has a real find in the Sarah of Zoe Glick, who instantly wins us over in the opening number, introducing herself to a classroom filled with young skeptics. ("Ooof. Tough crowd," she says, demonstrating early signs of showbiz savvy.) She puts over the not-quite-good-enough number "I Couldn't Agree More," willingly, even eagerly, accepting the insults of her so-called friends. Without pushing too hard, she communicates Sarah's terror at having her urinary issue found out at a sleepover party as well as her slide into a tranquilizer-fueled haze. A performer with big eyes, a big voice, and a big heart, you'll be rooting for her all the way.

The other principals make the most of their sometimes-limited opportunities. As Sarah's father, a poster child for middle-age disappointment, Darren Goldstein, rocking a purposely terrible toupee, gets the best numbers. These include "In My Line of Work," which hilariously lays out his randy on-the-job ways; "Crazy Donny's Factory Outlet," a supremely tacky TV commercial complete with spandex-clad cuties; and "When I Was Nine," a touching duet with Sarah. Caissie Levy is one good song away from being really memorable as Sarah's mother, but the writers need to give her a solo that probes her disaffection. Bebe Neuwirth is shockingly underused as Sarah's tippling grandmother. ("I'm gonna give you a little advice: Tomorrow, you tell the other fifth graders, you know how to make a Manhattan, then see how fast you make new friends.")

Some of the best moments are courtesy of the featured players. Ashley Blanchet consistently amuses as a radiantly self-adoring Miss New Hampshire, a figure who haunts the imaginations of half the cast. Blanchet gets the title tune, which weds the show's everyone-is-screwed-up theme to a melody that Karen Carpenter or Anne Murray might covet. Rick Crom artfully caricatures two very different, if equally ineffective, doctors, offering a killer Johnny Carson imitation to boot. Ellyn Marie Marsh slays as an unnervingly tough-talking fifth-grade teacher and as a disappointed housewife, presenting her daughter with tainted birthday wishes. ("May all your dreams come true! Mine did not!")

The production designs for musicals at the Atlantic often look like rough sketches and this one is no exception. Scenic designer Laura Jellinek employs an ingenious array of pivoting walls and sliders to suggest various locations, but everything looks stark and under furnished; Japhy Weideman's lighting is mostly functional. Much better are Kaye Voce's accurate early-'80s costumes; there's not a natural fiber on that stage. Tom Watson's period-perfect hair and wigs, many of which invoke the shade of Farrah Fawcett, and Kai Harada's pleasingly natural sound design are assets, too. Clearly having the most fun is projection designer Lucy Mackinnon, offering sly spoofs of the Miss America Pageant and The Tonight Show in its Carson heyday.

The director, Anne Kauffman, is a whiz at certain types of wry, melancholic humor, but she's not at home marshaling the many moving parts of a classic book musical; a savvier, slicker approach may be indicated. Interestingly, The Bedwetter bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Kimberly Akimbo, seen at the Atlantic in December. Both musicals feature painfully vulnerable young girls contending with a hostile universe while getting no support from the self-absorbed adult world. Both also treat their lead characters' troubles as cause for comedy. But the Broadway-bound Kimberly Akimbo benefits from a clear sense of purpose and a unity of tone; The Bedwetter isn't there yet, but the potential exists, if everyone involved is willing to take a hard look at it. --David Barbour

(14 June 2022)

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