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Mike Birbiglia: The New One

Theatre Review by James Wilson - August 2, 2018

Mike Birbiglia
Photo by Joan Marcus

The central image of Mike Birbiglia's dazzling new solo show, aptly and simply named The New One, is a couch. This "sophisticated piece of technology," as he describes a standard living-room couch, is one of life's most essential possessions. Think about it: purchasing one's first couch is a symbol of independence, and owning one is the surest declaration of adulthood. Even more importantly, the couch, particularly for Birbiglia, is a source of comfort, intimacy, and a site for countless hours of television and eating pleasures.

Of course, audiences familiar with Mike Birbiglia's work will know that The New One surely has more on its mind than furniture — though there is a very funny riff on the difference between modest couches and egotistical beds, which have rooms named after them and get to be dubbed "king." Actually, Birbiglia's chief focus is on parenting. To say that he enters fatherhood reluctantly would be a huge understatement: He goes into it kicking and screaming.

At the beginning of the evening, Birbiglia is adamantly anti-children. Part of the reason for his attitude has as much to do with screaming babies on planes as it does with so-called well-meaning parents. "Maybe I have a low tolerance for children," he explains, "because I've lost a lot of great friends to kids. Because it really is like a disease. But it's worse than a disease because they want you to have it too." He is quick to point out, though, that he does not want to see harm done to children; the practice of producing children should merely come to an end. As he says, "The current children can see through their term. But maybe we cut it off there. We were given the earth and we failed. At a certain point we gotta call it."

In this seemingly freewheeling, but exquisitely crafted monologue, Birbiglia charts his emotional, psychological, and medical passage to parenthood. Along the way he shows the impact a new baby has on the relationship with his wife Jen, and eventually he becomes a separate entity in the new "we" of the household triumvirate.

Hovering over the account is Birbiglia's own mortality as well as the danger he poses to himself and his family due to a sleep malady. Simultaneously frightening and hilarious, he recounts his experiences with (and management of) his REM Behavior Disorder, which is the subject of his earlier monologue and film adaptation, Sleepwalk with Me.

Directed by Seth Barrish, The New One is a deft combination of stand-up comedy, autobiographical performance, and one-person play. Beowulf Boritt's scenic design and Aaron Copp's lighting contribute to the theatricality of the piece, and they effectively evoke moments of flashback (to Amsterdam's Red Light District, for instance) and the strange and cluttered world of fatherhood.

As with his previous works, such as My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and Thank God for Jokes, Birbiglia weaves personal narrative with droll observations and discursive tangents that morph into new and even more discursive tangents. For instance, the bit about letting "current children see through their term" logically moves to an indictment on New Yorkers' recycling habits to garbage incineration in Germany and then concludes in a moral judgment about people being directly acquainted with Nazis. Miraculously, it all works, and the comic payoff is substantial.

At the center of it all is Birbiglia's self-effacing, nerdy persona. He is a congenial everyman, and his affable manner gives him leeway to take the audience to the edge of life's darkest and most absurd places. Pain, rejection, and humiliation are always just under the surface, and the jokes provoke winces almost as often as they trigger laughs.

By the end of the evening Birbiglia's tale reaches a rich and moving conclusion. After all, that is what one expects from an expert raconteur. And what about the fate of that couch? Now that's another story.

Mike Birbiglia: The New One
Through August 26
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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