Zingy, 10-year-old Sarah Silverman (Zoe Glick) isn’t a natural fit for the town of Bedford, N.H., where sour, flinty fatalism is the norm. “May all your dreams come true,” one local says at a birthday party. “Mine did not.”
The Silvermans, who anchor the new musical “The Bedwetter,” are defiantly nonconformist: all id, all the time. Sarah’s lately divorced father, the proprietor of Crazy Donny’s Factory Outlet (Darren Goldstein), encourages her to wow her new classmates with the dirty jokes he’s taught her. Dipso Nana (Bebe Neuwirth) thinks Sarah’s bartending skills are a better bet to impress. And if Sarah’s mother, Beth Ann (Caissie Levy), expresses herself by spending days in bed watching old movies, Sarah, taking the family’s let-it-all-out mojo perhaps too far, does so by wetting hers at night.
Still, she is cheerfully resigned to being a misfit, taking no offense even when her sister, Laura (Emily Zimmerman), wanting nothing to do with her in public, sings a song called “I Don’t Know This Person.” And to beat her new fifth-grade classmates to the punch, Sarah pre-emptively tells them, in “I Couldn’t Agree More,” that she’s “eww-y” and “Jewy.” Not only are her arms “so hairy,” but “You should see my back.”
Satisfying as the standup rhythm is, “The Bedwetter,” which opened Tuesday at the Linda Gross Theater, is sometimes, like its title character, a bit of a misfit. Based on the real Sarah Silverman’s 2010 memoir, subtitled “Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee,” it works best when it aims for the comic highs of that charming if gangly book. As long as it sticks close to young Sarah’s resilience as she tries to make friends without revealing her mortifying condition, “The Bedwetter,” an Atlantic Theater Company production, is a potty-mouthed pleasure. But in jimmying the original into a more serious musical format as it proceeds, it achieves only a middling geniality.
It starts out promisingly enough, establishing the main characters efficiently and with good humor. The songs, with music by Adam Schlesinger and lyrics by Schlesinger and Silverman, have the cheesy irreverence and synth-y disposability of period television jingles — the period being the early 1980s. Donny’s numbers, performed with schlubby insouciance by Goldstein, are a highlight, including one, whose refrain can’t be printed here, that explains how he knows all the other girls’ mothers. Perhaps you can imagine what rhymes with “along.”
But a little of that sound goes a long way, just as Silverman’s naïve inappropriateness, so effective in her standup, works only the first few times onstage. When Sarah, introducing herself to her class, mentions a brother who died, her reflex not to seem piteous makes her explanation weirdly funny: “He was just like a baby, so it wasn’t sad or anything.” But when that death — and a lot of other dark material — comes to the forefront, the laughs wear thin.
If such moments don’t feel out of place in Silverman’s memoir, that’s in part because its episodic narrative leaps froglike through 40 years of her life, quickly dispensing with even the most disturbing events. And though it makes sense that the musical’s authors would narrow the focus and shorten the time span, the book by Joshua Harmon (“Bad Jews”) and Silverman overreaches; in attempting to backfill the story with drama to justify the addition of songs, they put too much pressure on the one year it depicts.
That’s the year in which Sarah arrives at McKelvie Middle School, manages to make frenemies of three classmates and, at the end of the first act, in an unconvincing scene involving diapers, finds the one thing she had hoped to keep private revealed. The second act deals with Sarah’s resulting depression — a state uncomfortably reminiscent of Beth Ann’s — as well as Nana’s mortality and a minor character’s suicide.
The music, and especially the lyrics, cannot support this turn toward “Fun Home” territory. (In her black wig, Glick, a very talented 14-year-old, looks like she’s already playing the young lead in that show.) What works well in the lighter material — like the earwormy title song, which sounds like “Day Tripper” being covered by the Partridge Family — feels flimsy in the heavier material, especially Beth Ann’s overdramatic arias. (Levy sings them beautifully, though.) As a result, the show seems to spring a leak, losing all its giddy energy as it sinks into the serious.
That’s a shame — the more so because Schlesinger, having died from Covid-19 complications in 2020, was not able to finish developing the musical with his collaborators. (The songwriter David Yazbek joined the team as a “creative consultant.”) Schlesinger’s songs for the 2008 stage version of “Cry-Baby” (written with David Javerbaum), as well as his experience in the pop-rock band Fountains of Wayne, demonstrated a quick ear for neat hooks but not yet the kind of complexity needed to carry theatrical emotion. And his lyrics with Silverman too often wander in search of a rhyme, then, sighting one in the distance, botch it.
Much of this might have been improved had Schlesinger lived. And much could still have been camouflaged by a strong staging. But “The Bedwetter” doesn’t get that, at least in this incarnation; the usually acute director Anne Kauffman, working on an awkward set by Laura Jellinek, seems to be going for a middle-school aesthetic to match its milieu. Even at two hours, the show feels needlessly elongated by switchovers from one vague locale to another — and by numbers, including one about Xanax, that extend well past their welcome.
About that Xanax: It’s a bizarre omission in the musical that it does not highlight, as the book clearly does, the role the massive over-prescription of that drug played in Sarah’s depression. (By age 14 she was taking 16 pills a day.) Perhaps this was a choice to make the drama more emotional than pharmaceutical but, in any case, it further burdens what is already a weak plot about a weak bladder. But then many of the show’s choices, like the promotion of a Miss New Hampshire character (Ashley Blanchet, suitably lovely) from cameo to mascot, seem similarly random. That’s true of Silverman’s comedy in general, built as it is on apparently aleatory mismatches of tone and content.
If that kind of randomness can be a convincing aesthetic in some art forms, I’ve never seen it work in musicals, where “that seems weird enough to work” never does. A show that operates on that principle may still hit a few highs; Neuwirth, dry and suave, certainly knows how to find them. The song in which she tells Sarah, warmly but practically, “You’re beautiful — to me,” is one of the few serious numbers that lands. Too often the rest of “The Bedwetter,” at least when aiming for tears, feels merely wet.
Through July 3 at the Linda Gross Theater, Manhattan; atlantictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours.