I first saw Mike Birbiglia back in 2008 in his show, “Sleepwalk With Me,” that went into great detail describing his REM sleep behavior disorder. Including the part where he realized there was a problem only after he jumped through a plate glass window one night. It was on the second floor so he lived.
I also saw him in “The One” which became a story about his daughter, but which started out as a story of a couch. I realized early on that Mike Birbiglia reminded me of my cousin, Tim. Tim could start a story about Grammy Gracie making breakfast at midnight to sober up the people playing cards in the dining room and end up talking about the people next door who owned the Boston Terrier that had the gimpy eye. And we pretty much loved every second of the tale.
This is a tightly woven piece of storytelling designed to make it appear adlibbed so that you relax and not flinch at all the parables and metaphors that Birbiglia is slipping under your door. Most are based on his physical situation, which is on the precarious side. He is not a physical specimen in any athletic way. His visits to the doctor are regular and he is now of an age where he is understanding that the doctor’s office items he previously looked at as decorative are actually functional. After an episode with his heart his doctor tests his lung capacity which is pretty much nil. Birbiglia asks, “Am I having a heart attack?” Doctor: “I don’t think so.”
They discuss the merits of exercise for about 45 minutes and Birbiglia goes to the Y under duress. Before he actually swims he must learn how to swim. It is a bad idea all around her tells us. “I don’t have ‘a swimmer’s body. I have what I call ‘a drowner’s body.’” The Y brings with it a cornucopia of childhood memories – like being a three foot tall boy in a sea of naked men and not liking how his future was shaping up. In the present there’s the signage – “Slippery When Wet” – isn’t everything he asks. How much chlorine is in that pool? And what about the urine that is the subject of another pool sign?
He wanders back and forth in his life. He has been a witness since he can remember. He was 6 when the Challenger blew up on the television in his classroom. That will tilt your cargo. Now that he is 40 he is looking at his life, eating better – even though healthy food goes to bed early and Pizza wants to stay up and party – and he is now doing the cardio that he vowed was not even a thing when he began walking in the shallow lane of a crowded pool.
Birbiglia is that kind of a storyteller who shuffles around the stage, sweet and slow and on the quiet side. He makes you lean in to hear him just at the moment he leans over to whisper in your ear. Well, it feels like that anyway. He just opens his mouth and life falls out.
Birbiglia is one of our marvelous time travelers. He is observing 360 degrees most of the time. Birbiglia is a walking collector of the facts of his surroundings and how they interact with the chatter and note taking going on between his ears. We can almost hear his next show revving up the motor for its closeup.
He swans though the past and pulls us into the right now. He marvels that he has survived and even thrived. For Birbiglia, today is yesterday’s future, and he’s here to deliver the good word. That word is LIFE – goofy, goofy life, and we are welcome to it. As foor the old man and the pool – well, you won’t see it coming, but when it does you will never forget it.
PS Cudos to Beowulf Borit who has created one of the most fascinating set pieces ever. Somewhere between a frozen wave and a warm blanket. Cool and welcoming at the same time. Kind of like Birbiglia himself.
The Old Man & The Pool – written and starring Mike Birbiglia; Directed by Seth Barrish
Set design – Beowulf Boritt, Lighting Design – Aaron Copp, Costume Design – Toni-Leslie James
Vivian Beaumong Theater, Lincoln Center through January 15. TICKETS HERE