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My Girlfriend's Boyfriend

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mike Birbiglia
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Just a look at Mike Birbiglia is enough to confirm the perpetual-third-wheel status suggested by the title of his new one-man comedy at the Barrow Street Theatre, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. His tousled hair, chubby face, and ample belly identify the kind of man who may not be first on any woman's list, even if his personality and manner are sparkling enough to ensure he's on everyone's. He is, in every way that matters, the nice guy who's forever destined to finish last—at least until he takes matters into his own hands.

The show is about how he masters doing exactly that, and how his self-discovery coincides with an informs his unconventional romance with Jenny, the woman who's now his wife. But like his first show, Sleepwalk with Me, which opened Off-Broadway in 2008, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend is most concerned with showing off this outstanding comic to the best of his considerable Everyman ability. At that, it's a more rousing success than its predecessor.

Sleepwalk with Me was a glorified stand-up act that made it clear that Birbiglia was still finding his legit stage legs. In both how he structured and presented the show, he got mired in mumbling asides that shredded his simple tale about his chronic sleep disorder into one long (albeit hilarious) detour. Now, he's polished his routine, and worked with director Seth Barrish to fashion a disciplined narrative that's just as funny, but even more dramatically satisfying, and develop an extra dose of confidence for the theatregoing multitudes.

Not too much, however: Birbiglia's lack of faith in himself is what imbues him with such effusive charm. He reveals himself (not surprisingly) as the kind of guy who, growing up, never thought anything strange about girlfriends that didn't want him to tell anyone he was dating them, or his steady dates keeping a spare man around just in case things went south with him. But after meeting Jenny—who was his second serious relationship with an extra boyfriend—Birbiglia discovers that advantageous circumstances can sometimes arise from less-than-ideal setups such as this.

Birbiglia's whirlwind tour through his implosive personal life only occasionally digresses—there's another marathon riff on shutting off cell phones, this time centered on customer-service call centers; and one ignited by a trip to Bermuda, in which he imagines the impact of radical-Islamic hijackers on the 72 virgins they hope await them in the afterlife (it may not sound like it, but it's a side-splitter)—but otherwise stays on point. Drawing a clear line from being a good-natured, sexually ignored schlub to someone who matters more to Jenny than anyone else, Birbiglia constructs and executes a compelling story that is absolutely permeated with everything from gentle chuckles to full-torso guffaws.

Barrish's staging is far from elaborate; it barely gets more active than when Birbiglia re-enacts, with intentional and endearing dopiness, his ride on a rotating carnival attraction called "the scrambler" that prevented him from, in his words, losing his "mouth virginity." But it's precise and it does its job. The same is true of Beowulf Boritt's set, which establishes a blank canvas of a chalkboard-covered, lecture-hall space that illustrates, in gloriously fragmented fashion, one of the anchoring anecdotes Birbiglia shares this time around.

It involves a two-car accident in which his vehicle was "T-boned," by a drunk driver "who probably would have enjoyed that cut of meat." Across the subsequent ten minutes, Birbiglia implicates the driver, the police, and the entire state of California in a mass conspiracy that—at least as he describes it—sounds like a crime sufficiently epic enough to warrant its own solo show. But even here, Birbiglia keeps his eyes and his mind on what matters most: Jenny, and how the accident, and its bizarre aftermath, will affect her.

This ultimately allows this ostensibly shallow comedian to swerve into the crux of his point about how love transforms first-string players and third wheels alike in ways that are often unrecognizable. Whether it's his subject matter or just a rigorous application of hard work, Birbiglia has found a way to concoct an evening that's both a scream and genuinely emotionally affecting. Perhaps no one will ever confuse Birbiglia with a great actor, but with My Girlfriend's Boyfriend he proves he's learned, knows how to communicate, and make you love him (and laugh at him) for one of the most difficult of theatrical achievements: how to be himself.

My Girlfriend's Boyfriend
Through May 15
Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue; 1 block south of Christopher Street
Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Tickets online and current performance schedule:

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