My first Mike Birbiglia show was “Sleepwalk with Me” in 2008 at the Bleecker Street Theater, where some of the 199 seats were behind poles. The 80-minute self-written monologue recounted how his Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behavior Disorder had resulted in him crashing through a second-story window of a Walla Walla motel. You could tell by his detailed, self-effacing delivery that it was all true. And it was very funny. My next sighting was “The New One” in 2017, about becoming a first-time father. Its sold-out run at the small-capacity Cherry Lane led to a Broadway transfer, where it ran for three months at The Cort Theater (recently re-named for James Earl Jones).
Both those shows were well received (the NY Times called “Sleepwalk” “simply perfect”), but neither was as insightful, as smartly written and sharply delivered or as devastatingly funny as is “The Old Man & the Pool,” running through January 15 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, a prestigious venue Mr. Birbiglia well deserves.
The son of a doctor father and nurse mother, Birbiglia has been plagued all his life with various maladies: Besides the lingering sleepwalking issue (he sleeps in a zip-up bag), there was a cancer diagnosis at nineteen (he is now 44) and later-diagnosed diabetes and a vascular glitch, for which, after rejecting a cardio regimen, he now swims five days a week, hence the title. (No one except he and Michael Phelps swims five days a week, we learn.)
If none of this seems funny, it is not…until Mike gets hold of it. He spares no diagnostic details, but the revelations inspire digressions that brim with humanity and wit. Not all of it is knee-slapping (the inability to say ‘I love you’ to parents is poignant), but mostly it falls somewhere between amusing and gut-busting. Isolated examples abound (Every condition is pre-existing unless it appears on the way to your appointment), but context is everything. A riff on middle school wrestling matches is hilarious, as is his and his wife’s meeting with a lawyer about writing a will. An extended sketch about a man who died holding his breath in a YMCA pool is a genius example of audience control.
Mike Birbiglia is simply the best at what he does: stand-up, real-life, comic commentary. Less folksy than Will Rogers, say, he is like a perceptive, modern Mark Twain – and more physical than either. Directed by long-time collaborator (you can just tell) Seth Barrish on Beowulf Boritt’s slick pool-floor set and lighted in sync by Aaron Copp, the show, certainly (and brilliantly) scripted, comes across as improvised on the spot, a special talent in itself. Birbiglia is eminently likeable; his smile disarms and his obvious enjoyment in performing is infectious. One marvels at his adept word choices (102-pound wrestlers tend to be your small folks) and his way of reviving a punchy tidbit from ten-minutes earlier that lands afresh with double impact.
And get this: there is not so much as a ‘hell’ or ‘damn’ in the whole ninety minutes. (The f-word? MIA.) No politics, none. Not one cringey wife joke or sexual innuendo. And it all works…every word. With the piece centered as it is on Birbiglia’s various life-threatening conditions, and unfeeling as this might seem (but offered in Birbiglian spirit), it might behoove you to secure your tickets before…well, before “The Old Man & the Pool” closes.
Through January 15 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. For Tues.-Sun. performance schedule and tickets: www.mikebirbigliabroadway.com Note: Saturday matinees are at 4pm, which guarantees a lively, happy dinner conversation.