Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 11, 2018
The New One by Mike Birbiglia. Directed by Seth Barrish. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Lighting design by Aaron Copp. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Additional writing by Jennifer Hope Stein. Cast: Mike Birbiglia.
Birbiglia has garnered a loyal fan base from his appearances on Ira Glass's public radio show "This American Life" and from his indie film and a New York Times bestseller, both titled "Sleepwalk With Me." If you are part of that base and were unable to snag a ticket to the sold-out production of The New One Off Broadway this past summer, you're in luck. Because some of those enthusiasts, most notably Mr. Glass who serves as executive producer, are eager for Broadway audiences to get to know him. Hence the move uptown.
Fans undoubtedly won't need much persuasion, but the same cannot be said for your typical Broadway audience. The unpretentious Birbiglia comes off as an affable, slightly quirky sort of guy, the kind with whom you'd be happy to have a beer or two with while he talks about couches, his array of health problems, a naïve encounter in Amsterdam's red light district, and his ever-patient wife, the poet Jennifer Hope Stein. In The New One, all of these anecdotes weave their way into a meandering tale about a man who is most reluctant to become a father and to be forced, as he mockingly quotes one mother-to-be, "to see the world through baby's eyes."
For Birbiglia, parenthood always seemed to be like an odd sort of contagious illness, one that all of his acquaintances with children inexplicably want him to experience, as if they were zombies eager to spread their disease. This is a man who knows a lot about diseases. He has found comic fodder from a bout with bladder cancer, Lyme disease, diabetes, and a serious sleep disorder that can lead to acting-out or even violent behavior in response to vivid dreams. "Not exactly handing off A-Plus genes here," he says by way of explanation for his parental reticence.
Still, there comes that special day when his wife remarks, "If we had a baby, I think it would be different." Other than the shock and panic that sets in, this comment triggers in Birbiglia a long discourse on the seven reasons why he finds the whole baby thing anathema. The shortest is the apparently self-explanatory Number 4: "I have a cat." But, of course, despite his recalcitrance, you can see the direction in which we are heading. If not, do check out the title of the show again.
This being a story for a long winter's night by the fireside, what ensues over the next 80 minutes is a pleasantly twisting jaunt along what my dad used to refer to as "the scenic route." There are a number of side trips along the way (masturbating into a cup, followed by testicular surgery being one of them), but eventually we get to the life-changing main event.
Birbiglia's engagingly comic approach mostly succeeds at avoiding clichés about the fatherhood-shy as he describes his journey in terms that would resonate most strongly with men within a typical reproductive age range, which is to say, not your typical Broadway theatergoing demographic. And while it might seem unfair to point this out with respect to a solo act, we are kind of stuck with a buddy who is telling only his side of the story. One wonders what Birbiglia's wife would share with us if she had the opportunity to speak beyond the little that is filtered through his interpretation.
Off Broadway, with its up-close-and-personal connection between performer and audience, would actually be a better venue for this type of show. The Broadway dynamic is not one in which there is a lot of room to accommodate a genial lone performer who is not a superstar sitting on a stool and telling stories about his life. It will take a lot of word-of-mouth to convince potential audiences to crack open the piggy bank for this one.