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Sleepwalk with Me

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mike Birbiglia
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When Nathan Lane talks, in-the-know theatre folk know to listen. Since his lilting punch of a voice commands your attention, why shouldn't his name when he places it prominently above the title of an Off-Broadway show? Sleepwalk With Me, the new show that Lane is coproducing at the Theatre at 45 Bleecker, conclusively proves it should. In Mike Birbiglia, the show's writer and performer, you'll find a talent of such vigorous freshness that you get a glimmer of understanding of what it might have been like to discover Lane once upon a time.

Birbiglia is an Everyman so bursting with guy-next-door affability, you wonder how he can stand to be onstage at all. He's paunchy, his voice is unassuming to the point of apologetic, and he tends to giggle like a chattering preteen at his own best lines. But his personality is so completely entwined with his effortlessly uncomfortable delivery, he becomes irresistible in spite of himself, crashing into laughs by backing into jokes with the force of a Driver's Ed student wielding an itchy gas-pedal foot.

This is a performer who can make any subject into a riff on anything. A simple "turn off your cell phones" speech sensibly spirals into a surreal impersonation of a Southern pedophiliac. Descriptions of his insomnia morph into lengthy diatribes on cable news and the Internet. And his pronunciation of a certain alliterative city name in Washington State, as rendered by a mincing Mexican, is priceless. Time and again, Birbiglia positions himself as not just any standup comedian, but as the standup comedian for a post-Seinfeld world.

Note I said "comedian," not "dramatist" or "actor." Because Birbiglia has longstanding experience as a professional comic, in clubs and on television, the copious pleasures he offer emanate from his stream-of-consciousness comic outlook and not his theatrical savvy. Embracing his ingratiating idiosyncrasies in a legitimate theatrical venue unfortunately involves looking past a rather thick catalog of faults that would instantly torpedo anyone less funny - and don't do Birbiglia any favors.

For one thing, Birbiglia mumbles. Constantly. Yes, he's wearing a radio microphone, so you can always hear him, but comprehending him takes far more effort than it should. While his mealy-mouthedness is well in keeping with his unassuming persona, much of the time it borders on going too far. (Interestingly, whenever he speaks up - whether in slight anger or in full-blown shout, he's is perfectly understandable and even looks more comfortable. This is likely not a coincidence.)

Worse is the structure (or lack thereof) of the story that gives the evening its title. Birbiglia suffers from a chronic condition called REM Behavior Disorder that leads him to act out his dreams, sometimes with dangerous results. (One time he destroyed his TiVo, another he plunged from a second-story hotel-room window.) The specifics surrounding how he acquired it, how it was diagnosed, and how it's being treated would need at most 10 minutes under normal circumstances. And in a traditional play, they might even be just one chapter of a longer narrative, or merely a theme linking more disparate experiences.

But in Birbiglia's 90-minute show, his ailment is little more than an excuse for those endless digressions into high-toned hilarity. Yes, that cell phone announcement is funny, but it takes him five minutes. His first bout with sleepwalking should be a pivotal moment, yet the instant he arrives at it, he says, "But I had always had vivid dreams about wild animals," and then wanders into ridiculous ruminations about bears and other Alaskan wildlife (including tour guides). Every major member of his family and every halfway-significant happening in his life, merits a similar routine.

None of these is remotely unamusing. But each delays Birbiglia from hitting necessary plot points, and this eventually dulls his humor's potentially cutting impact. Great comedians either forgo such linking devices altogether, or weave them into the order of the jokes or even into the characterizations. Since Birbiglia doesn't really portray any characters - given his vocal limitations, this is probably wise - and since his jokes are mostly random, he gets into trouble early and never gets out.

Director Seth Barrish keeps him as disciplined as possible, but is ultimately just corralling chaos. What Barrish, Birbiglia, and Lane all obviously know is that this show is funny enough to defy critics and other naysayers who might otherwise mock the title as a harbinger of bad times to come. But Sleepwalk With Me could be funnier and more moving still if they would all wake up to the fact that a genius standup comic is not automatically a genius theatre man.

Sleepwalk with Me
Through January 18
Bleecker Street Theatre, 45 Bleecker Street just East of Lafayette Street
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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