Review by Brittany Crowell
The audience waits with a blank stage, exposing the brick of the theater walls and framing the playing space with an array of theatrical lighting that will shift seamlessly between each new beat of the story (lighting design by Aaron Copp). Mike Birbiglia, an actor, comedian, and storyteller, who has performed several live shows (a few of which were made into movies or Netflix specials), animates the full space in The New One, playing at the Cort Theatre on Broadway.
Birbiglia is an expert storyteller and crafter of jokes. He immediately brings the audience into the space with him by telling us that before he begins his story, he wants to tell us about his couch. He then explains the progression of his relationship with his couch, from his early 20s, street-side, garbage couch to dropping a large amount of money for his first good couch and all of the wonderful memories made on the couch in the years after. The couch unifies the audience and gives us all a point of entry into a very specific story that we may not all be able to relate to directly. The couch becomes one of the main characters of the story and we follow the shifts in narrative through the couch: how its purpose or stature transitions and how our relationship to this universally known object changes.
Birbiglia then jumps into The New One, a story about his journey from not wanting to have a child, to deciding to have a child, to having one and not knowing what to do, to realizing that there is good and joy in this “new” experience.
The couch isn’t the only punchline that returns later. Birbiglia is a master at crafting through-lines for his jokes, making the audience feel like they are in on it, that there is an inside joke within the theater that anyone who hasn’t been following the story wouldn’t understand. In this way, Birbiglia is crafting a deeper relationship and trust with the audience; we travel with him as he teeters on the line and are more forgiving and understanding if our line for humor is ever crossed. At the end of the day, Birbiglia allows us all to laugh at him as we relate to him, remaining (for the most part) the butt of all of his own jokes.
Most of the jokes within this show were solidly on the good side of my line, however, there reached a point towards the end of the piece where the joke of how awful children are reached a potentially polarizing place for the audience – those who don’t want children continued to laugh while those who did might have felt alienated, however, quickly, the story resolved itself into finding joy in this “new” experience, and the audience left the theater with more hope than remorse or fear.
In this time of political divide and tension, it was refreshing to laugh with an entire theatre of people about the troubles and aches of a universally human conundrum. The piece acknowledged our current social and political landscape, but didn’t inspect it or rely on it for the laughs, which led to a refreshing evening of laughter-as-medicine. The audience connected with those around them as we laughed together about what it means to have (or not have) children.
THE NEW ONE – written by Mike Birbiglia; directed by Seth Barrish
WITH – Mike Birbiglia (himself)
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt; lighting design by Aaron Copp; sound design by Leon Rothenberg; additional writing by Jennifer Hope Stein; executive producer, Ira Glass; associate producer, Joseph Birbiglia; production consultant, Mike Lavoie; creative consultant, Peter Salomone and Jonny Levin; consigliere, Mike Berkowitz; general manager, Bespoke Theatricals; technical supervisor, Hudson Theatrical Associates; production stage manager; Ira Mont. At the Cort Theatre (138 W 48th St); www.thenewone.com; 212-239-6200; through January 9. Running time: 80 minutes no intermission.