I was unprepared for the new musical The Bedwetter to have a literal scene out of my childhood on stage.
Did every little girl in the 80s sing an earnest rendition of “The Rose” during a talent show? I for sure did this with two friends as a round during our 6th grade overnight trip.
This is all to say there’s a lot of honest, sincere, and relatable Gen X pre-teen cringe in this book-to-stage musical adaptation of Sarah Silverman’s memoir of the same title.
Even if you were not a hairy Jew with clinical depression who wet the bed in New Hampshire (and maybe were a hairy Italian who used to have fire drills for her hamster due to anxiety in Massachusetts), this is a respectful portrait of children dealing with trauma, divorce, mental health, and the overall nightmare that is growing up.
After her parents’ divorce, 10-years-old Sarah Silverman (Zoe Glick) is forced to start over at a new school. Her cool older sister Laura (Emily Zimmerman) makes friends easily and wants nothing to do with her. Her mother Beth Ann (usually Caissie Levy but Lauren Marcus at the performance I attended) doesn’t leave her bed. Her dad Donald (Darren Goldstein) runs a discount clothing store and is schtupping every woman in sight. Her grandmother (Bene Neuwirth) has a drinking problem. There’s a family loss that is not talked about. Sarah tries to use a kind of radical positivity and oddball sense of humor to make friends. She just hopes they never find out her secret bed wetting habit.
The origins of Silverman’s potty mouth sense of humor and her embrace of comedy as a coping mechanism are present here. But in its portraiture, book writers Joshua Harmon and Silverman and director Anne Kaufman unite the specifics of Silverman’s story with something more profound.
Everything Sarah experiences is also shaded with the painful discovery that adults don’t know what they are doing either. It’s a bit scary for a 10-year-old to see this so clearly, but validating for those of us who also caught on prematurely. For all of the show’s dancing valium, Miss New Hampshire dream sequences, and Johnny Carson impressions, it’s this serious and direct truth that shines through.
There is also a sad coda to the production. Lyricist and composer Adam Schlesinger who brough the idea to Silverman in the first instance passed away from COVID at age 52 when the show was in rehearsals in 2020. The overall musical sound is a mix of Schlesinger’s peppy pop-musical numbers, 70s folk-pop references, and even an 80s TV commercial parody.
The show has pacing and tone issues. At times, the production looks wan (even for an Off-Broadway small-scale musical). It can be oddly quiet in an underdone way. But then there’s this intriguing use of layered projections of Saturday morning cartoons as Sarah slips further into her depression and refuses to leave bed (her mother’s depression is also woven in here with non-stop old movie watching). That moment expands the visual landscape of the show and that blossoming shows the potential for more.
The musical’s shift from filth to pathos can be herky-jerky. Some numbers do feel like an excuse to do something louche for louche’s sake. And listen, that’s not my favorite thing. But I’m not going to fight the obvious style and approach this musical is choosing to go. Is a bombastic number about Donny sleeping with the moms of Sarah’s friends necessary? I’m not convinced. Though these moments are authentic to the characters and their voices. And that too is a strength of the show.
It is also precise in its 1980s New England references. I was the only person in the theater who audibly enjoyed the Dana Hersey Movie Loft reference. But I deeply appreciated it in my 1980s New England childhood bones. I only wish the cast could have managed to do accurate New Hampshire accents.
Costuming by Kaye Voyce is uncomfortably on point with tube socks, graphic sweaters, ruffled sleeves, and knickers (WHY WAS THIS SHORT PANT THING A TREND. WHY DO I HAVE PICTURES OF ME WEARING THEM). I also spotted a Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bag I had.
And this is not just empty nostalgia speaking. I appreciated how well-thought through these details were. All of it added to the authenticity of Silverman’s experience, her memories, and how personal the show was.
Darren Goldstein’s Donny is equal parts sensitive and sleazy. A divorced dad without a clue how to help his depressed 10-year-old. Donny fumbles his way through a touching “Telephone Wire”-esque moment of connection which is delicately rendered in song and performance by both Goldstein and Glick. Bebe Neuwirth delivers a surprisingly inappropriate, salty old broad of a grandmother well.
While it’s a show that needs work, the material is worth the effort. It’s refreshing to see these preteen girls rendered with a respect to their feelings and experiences.