Culture

Sarah Silverman’s Childhood Pee Problem Takes Center Stage


During intermission at a recent Saturday matinée of “The Bedwetter” (directed by Anne Kauffman, at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s Linda Gross), I stepped outside to warm myself in the spring sunshine and was joined by a mother with two kids, a girl on the cusp of adolescence and her younger brother. It tickled me to see them there. The show, with music by Adam Schlesinger, who co-wrote the lyrics with the comedian Sarah Silverman, and a book by Silverman and Joshua Harmon, is based on Silverman’s 2010 memoir of the same name—subtitle: “Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee.” It involves the trials and tribulations of a ten-year-old, but it’s not exactly what you’d call child-appropriate. No duh: it’s a Sarah Silverman production. There’s cursing and sex jokes, an alcoholic grandma and a potty-mouthed beauty queen; in my own youth, Tipper Gore would have slapped the cast album with one of those parental-advisory stickers which worked like catnip on the developing prefrontal cortex. But what does “child-appropriate” mean, anyway? Grownups are always sanitizing childhood for their own preachy purposes. “The Bedwetter” deals both with adults’ failures and weaknesses and with kids’ inhumanity to kids. It’s also goofy, sweet, and hopeful in a way that may make budding cynics roll their eyes but touched the heart of this aging one.

It’s 1980 or so. Sarah (the plucky Zoe Glick), a new fifth grader in a small New Hampshire town, is charged with introducing herself to her class, a nerve-racking assignment that she handles like a pro. With her dark hair chopped in a gloriously unflattering cut halfway between bob and bowl, and her khakis held up by rainbow suspenders, which she sports in tribute to her idol, Mork from Ork, she is nerd-dom incarnate, and she glows with confidence as she belts out her life story to a room full of judgmental strangers:

Hi, my name is Sarah and I recently turned ten
I just moved here from Manchester where I’ve always lived and had lots of friends
And a great blue house with a great back yard, but now that we’re divorced
I live here in Bedford which is gonna be just as good of course
And now I have two houses and, come on, that’s pretty cool
And now my sister Laura and I are here at McKelvie Middle School
And I can’t wait to make a new best friend, or two or three this year
And I’m just really really
Fucking excited to be here!

Oops. Sarah’s F-bomb earns a chastisement from her gruff hard-ass of a teacher, Mrs. Dembo (Ellyn Marie Marsh), but Sarah didn’t mean to be rebellious or rude; she just forgot that bad words are for “at home” use only. Sarah’s dad, Donald (Darren Goldstein), handsome and hirsute, with a thick schmear of a Boston accent, likes to share a new dirty joke with his kids every day; his mother, Sarah’s Nana (Bebe Neuwirth, a delight to witness at close range in an Off Broadway house), says things like “easy peezy, titty squeezy” between sips of her serial Manhattans, which the adoring Sarah eagerly mixes for her. (“You might not be everyone’s cup of tea,” Nana tells Sarah, but “you’re beautiful to me.” No one does qualified praise like a bubbe.) You can see where Sarah gets her sense of humor, and her showmanship. Donald, who owns a discount clothing store called Crazy Donny’s Factory Outlet, is a fast-talking charmer, popular with the ladies. Why does he know the names of all the moms of Sarah’s classmates? “Looking at the numbers, the result I’ve seen is / twelve per cent of customers enjoy my penis,” he sings, in a song innocuously titled “In My Line of Work.” You can’t argue with statistics.

The one woman who does not swoon over such antics is Sarah’s mom, Beth Ann (Caissie Levy). Though nothing is physically wrong with her, she has responded to the pain of divorce by taking to her bed, where she whiles away the days watching TV and flipping through People magazine. The seeds of her sorrow were planted years earlier. Before Sarah was born, the Silvermans had a son, Jeffrey, who died in an accident when he was three months old, a tragedy that Sarah, a sponge for grownup talk she doesn’t understand, obliviously mines for material. “He was just, like, a baby, so it wasn’t sad or anything,” she assures a startled Mrs. Dembo after trying out a bit about Jeffrey in her introduction routine.

Death is an abstraction to most kids, especially to one who’s this defiantly optimistic about life. Nothing seems to get Sarah down: not her beautiful older sister, Laura (Emily Zimmerman), who sees Sarah as an annoying obstacle in her quest for popularity, and not the clique of mean girls in her class, who wear white tights and Mary Janes, like Samantha, the prissiest American Girl doll, and regard her as a total weirdo. Sarah knows exactly how to defuse their contempt. “I couldn’t agree more,” she chirps, when Ally (Charlotte Elizabeth Curtis) observes that her arms are hairy, or Abby (Charlotte MacLeod) mocks her enormous teeth. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and Sarah does. Her ready self-deprecation and celebrity-fart impressions win her a ticket to inclusion, or something like it; at a birthday party with the girls, Sarah comes off as more mascot than friend, the “brunette in a blonde world,” as the script puts it, or, really, a Jew in a world of New England Wasps. (Everyone seems to think she’s from New York, a place she’s never even visited.) But, for all her moxie, Sarah does have an Achilles’ heel: her bladder, the one thing she can’t control. She wets the bed almost every night, and she knows that, if her secret leaks, she’ll be sentenced to the social guillotine.

In her memoir, Silverman describes suffering from clinical depression, which came over her “as fast as a cloud covering the sun” when she was twelve. The shame caused by her pee problem may have had something to do with it. “I had always been able to turn pain or discomfort into humor,” she writes, “but that trick was gone now.” In the second act of “The Bedwetter,” Sarah’s bright internal bulb goes suddenly dark. Her worried dad drags her first to a quack hypnotist, to try to cure her bed-wetting, and then to a sinister psychiatrist (Rick Crom plays both parts), who, in his lunatic attempts to revive the catatonic child in his care, may remind you of the Acid Queen in “The Who’s Tommy,” and is about as effective. Instead of LSD, he prescribes Xanax, which he encourages Sarah to take by the fistful.

The show is tinged with extratextual sadness, too. A Playbill note from Silverman, Harmon, and Kauffman tells us that Schlesinger—who co-wrote the songs for the TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and, with his band, Fountains of Wayne, gave voice to forbidden teen longing in the 2003 song “Stacy’s Mom”—had the idea to turn Silverman’s book into a musical. In March of 2020, when rehearsals were set to begin, Schlesinger contracted Covid. He died that April, at the age of fifty-two. “He wanted our show to be joyful, ridiculous, and most of all, funny,” his collaborators write. Consider his work done.

“Tragically, my life has only been moderately fucked up,” Silverman jokes in her memoir: no abuse, no addiction, no big trauma. But what’s there is more than enough. In one scene that got me, Sarah and Donald compare notes on disappointment. If it’s hard to hit middle age and give up on the dreams of your youth, it’s no easier to leave behind the innocence of childhood for the jaded double digits. Lest that make things sound too treacly, rest assured that the show’s true savior arrives in the shapely form of a former Miss New Hampshire (Ashley Blanchet), and that Sarah finds her redemption not in any sincere parent-kid chat but on a stage, in front of an audience, where she belongs. There’s something to be said for exposure therapy—the kind where you deal with your problems by exposing them to everyone else. Grab a mike, step right up. Your freak flag isn’t going to fly itself. ♦



READ NEWS SOURCE

Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.