When the woman in the audience finally quit laughing, someone else started. The theatre was filled with gurgles and laughs in waves. Ineffectively gesturing mock rage at the dispersed offenders, Mike Birbiglia warned them. They lacked respect, The woman started to chuckle in small, congested gasps. She persisted, and all of a sudden, everybody started laughing.
Birbiglia had been attempting, though not particularly unsuccessfully, to elicit a moment of silence at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in honour of a guy who had passed away. It was a mission that was intentionally botched. The joke was that. Additionally, taking a moment to scan the theatre at that point was instructive in another way. We were laughing, as one could see. A joke's effect and mechanics could be seen, as well as how humour functions. It served as both another flawlessly crafted Birbiglia comedy set-piece and a real-time snapshot of laughter as a shared experience.
The New One, Birbiglia's final theatrical production, won Best Solo Performance awards from the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle, and it was turned into a Netflix special. The Old Man & the Pool (until January 15, 2023) is directed by Seth Barrish and, like that magnificent production, skillfully combines an epically big Broadway stage with the subtleties of a storyteller who engages the audience closely. Although clearly theatre and not stand-up, this is just as charming and meandering as Birbiglia's admirers would want.
The two programmes are related by contrast: one was about new life, while the other, as suggested by the program's title, is about mortality and endlessly insistent, creeping decay. The only decoration on the stage, created by Beowulf Boritt, is a kind of folded page or skate ramp on which are projected variously words, a medical graph, and the speckled tiles of a swimming pool. Birbiglia is dressed in unassuming modern dad casual attire.
Having survived bladder cancer and learning he has Type II diabetes when the play opens, Birbiglia claims he is no stranger to death's tendrils. His breathing is so pitiful that his doctor believes he might be having a heart attack in his consulting room. Birbiglia correctly asks what the term "pre-existing condition" actually means. Conditions are good.
He considers how young he was when his father passed away at age 56 and wonders whether his own daughter will still be a teenager if he passes away at the same age (he is now 44). His brother advises him to create a will, but Birbiglia dismisses the idea since he knows that when such news surfaces, everyone will be vying for the spoils. He claims that the word "pizza," in its basic construction, is delectable. Even similar words, like "plaza," make him think of those enchanted slices.
We are all enchanted and seduced. He claims that he has a drowner's body rather than a swimmer's one. In one barnstorming riff, he describes the Brooklyn YMCA as more of a stench than a physical structure. Birbiglia finds humour in everything around him and tells jokes so effortlessly that they seem natural. This stage comfort serves as a wonderful disguise for a clever comedy technician. This is not the carefree piece of theatre it first appears to be; rather, it is cleverly written and skillfully executed.
Do you exercise? This brings back memories of his time as a school-age wrestler, when he couldn't run from the action like in team sports. He admits that he did discover some reluctant wrestlers, like himself, who were both content to forfeit a victory. Then came swimming, which brought back memories of the valley of adult male penises he had seen in the locker room as a little lad. He cracks a bad joke with his swimming instructor as an adult, stopping everyone in the water.
Birbiglia is a virtuoso of comic agony, delivering it with the utmost good humour. When audience members arrive late, he gently corrects them and summarises what they have missed. On his one and only prop, an upright stool, he occasionally sits. At one point, he energetically throws himself against the sweeping backdrop. The fact that Birbiglia is really attractive and has a more-than-good body is the only very obvious issue with the show. Birbiglia eventually decides to take the best possible measures to live a healthy life because the threat of disease and mortality has been with him for such a long time.
Since Birbiglia lies down on stage to portray reading his daughter bedtime stories, his love for her—the toughest audience for her comedian father—is also the non-joke central theme of the performance. Yes, the doctors have correctly frightened him into improving his diet and going for regular swims, but his wife's stare seems like its own frightful-sounding corrective. The business of dying, being unwell, and being alive is somehow made to be the funniest thing by Birbiglia.