What happens to great comedians when they decide to write a musical? Why does their signature sharp wit suddenly turn all squishy and sentimental?
The two most recent examples of this unfortunate phenomenon are Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night,” which opened on Broadway this past season, and Sarah Silverman’s “The Bedwetter,” which opened Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Goss Theater. Crystal’s show is about a comic at the end of his long career and Silverman’s is about a comic at the very beginning of hers. The character is named Sarah Silverman (played by the sassy Zoe Glick), and the book by Silverman and Joshua Harmon uses the comedian’s 2011 memoir, “The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee,” as its source material.
What initially attracts us to Crystal and Silverman’s respective characters, and several of the family members surrounding them, is that they are basically nasty, irreverent and wildly inappropriate in their actions and words. In other words, the lead characters are basically truth-tellers who, unfortunately, end up being reformed.
In “The Bedwetter,” Sarah’s mother (Cassie Levy) prefers to stay in bed watching TV than to raise her two daughters. The reason for her lethargy is made fun of by the 10-year-old Sarah in a way that’s cruel, insensitive and also as spot-on accurate as it is funny. Glick possesses a piercing soprano that goes in one ear and gets stuck there. It takes some getting used to, but the sound soon emerges as yet another quirky character trait that endears us to her.
Also a wicked delight is her father (the wonderfully sated Darren Goldstein), who is a chronic philanderer who has banged all of Sarah’s future friends’ mothers. In addition to being a bed-wetter and Jewish in what appears to be an all-Gentile community in New Hampshire, little Sarah is the new kid in school, a move having been facilitated by her parents’ recent divorce. Being Jewish and the new kid and a closet bed-wetter and having an older sister (Emily Zimmerman, doing her best in an underwritten, thankless role) who is instantly popular in school because she’s gorgeous – these are all subjects that are held up to ridicule for our entertainment. And when Harmon and Silverman’s book and Silverman and Adam Schlesinger’s lyrics hit those targets, “The Bedwetter” is a very perceptive and funny musical.
Best of their creations is Sarah’s grandmother, a role that Bebe Neuwirth clearly relishes. Here’s a chronic drunk who has taught her granddaughter to pour the perfect martini way before the kid hits her teens.
Anne Kauffman’s direction is a little sluggish when it should be rapid-paced, and Laura Jellinek has designed a messy and truly unattractive set. But “The Bedwetter” survives these problems — until late in the first act when Mom sings the clunky song “Your Father and I,” in which she tells her two kids, “Your father and I don’t agree on much these days, it’s true/But we’ve got one thing in common, one thing in common/And that’s how much we love the two of you.”
Since Sarah’s super-smart and has a foul mouth, we expect her to gag after hearing this verbal vomit. Unfortunately, the three writers of “The Bedwetter” have turned off their title character’s BS detector with “Your Father and I.” Sarah believes her mother’s self-defensive drivel, and the musical immediately detours into the land of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“Father and I” has a country-Western lilt to it, so we’re supposed to take it seriously. But seriously, the late Schlesinger’s composition here, and elsewhere, is no better than his song parodies that make fun of the Miss America beauty pageant and TV commercials (Sarah’s father owns a discount outlet). David Chase’s aggressively jingly orchestrations seem to have been written in the 1970s instead of commenting on the 1970s.
Sarah is the kind of kid who makes a joke – and a funny joke – about the recent murder of John Lennon. Too bad that little girl completely disappears in the ahow’s second act. Bathos overtakes “The Bedwetter,” and somehow all that sticky sentiment delivers an antidote that not only cures Sarah of her bedwetting but it gets Mom out of bed and turns Dad into a good guy, and even Grandma manages to cut her alcohol consumption in half.
Musicals don’t have to pander in this way. The Atlantic Theater’s last musical-theater premiere was the brilliant “Kimberly Akimbo,” which opens on Broadway this fall. In that show, the dysfunctional family is never cured, and ends up as much a mess as when we first meet them.
Perhaps “The Bedwetter” could have been even more saccharine. Silverman & Co. could have had Grandma check into rehab or start attending AA meetings.