Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool
Birbiglia in his new solo show, Michael Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool at
the Vivian Beaumont.
Birbiglia is back! Yes, that stand-up comedian turned virtuoso storyteller
returns to the Great White Way with another rib-tickling solo show, Mike
Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool (at the Vivian Beaumont, now extended
through January 15th). Directed by his long-time
collaborator Seth Barrish (The New One, Sleepwalk With Me), this
coming-of-middle-age tale takes a deep dive into the subject of mortality, ingeniously
coupling comedy and tragedy as only Birbiglia can.
casually in a light blue shirt, mauve colored pants, and tan sneakers (costume
design by Toni-Leslie James), Birbiglia is the epitome of everyman as he greets
us from the stage. No pretensions, no affectations, no grandstanding.
Boritt’s pristine set, lighted by Aaron Copp, suggests a swimming pool
environment, with the stage’s backwall looking like a reflecting pool. The big
advantage to this Spartan stage design is that it keeps the focus front and
center on our yarn-spinner.
virtuoso storyteller Mike Birbiglia in his new solo show, Mike Birbiglia:
The Old Man & the Pool at the Vivian Beaumont.
show opens with Birbiglia’s at his annual physical, in which the 44 year-old
recounts his abysmal performance on a pulmonary test. To wit: He blew his
breath into a device to test his lung capacity, with the dial hardly lifting
from zero. “Am I having a heart attack?” he asked the doctor, who responds
with the horrifyingly vague: ”I don’t think so.” But he does tell Birbiglia in
no uncertain terms that he has Type 2 diabetes. Unsurprisingly, this diagnosis
is followed by recommendations for a healthier diet and a five-days-a-week swimming
regimen, all designed to improve his cardiovascular strength.
balks at this aggressive swim schedule, inwardly thinking that Michael Phelps
would feel inundated by it. But Birbiglia also sees the writing on the wall,
as he shares the health history of his family tree: His father and grandfather
both died at age 56 from heart attacks. Little wonder that our raconteur feels
that he is living on borrowed time.
his characteristic self-deprecating humor, Birbiglia explains how he decided to
become a habitué at his local Y.M.C.A. and get in the swim of things. But it
was a tough go for this non-athletic artist. There was the highly chlorinated
water to remind him of the large quantity of urine in the water; the fungus
puddles on the pool’s deck lying in ambush; the swim cap that he borrowed from his
instructor to pull over the sparse hairs on his head. In short, a public pool
is not for the vain or squeamish-stomached.
is no stranger to Broadway. Indeed, the audience’s laughter ratcheted up when
he mentioned his daughter Oona, the subject of The New One, which
debuted on Broadway four years ago. Aside from Broadway, there’s his other
showbiz projects: his film Sleepwalk with Me (It’s about his
sleepwalking woes) based on his hugely popular one-man show of the same
name and in which he also starred. Then there’s his forays into Off Broadway,
movies, television, books, and podcasts.
storytelling technique is not as the crow flies. He digresses quite a bit, but
deliciously so. Case in point. Birbiglia confesses to an unhealthy obsession
for pizza, which he dubs the ultimate late-night party food. His shtick on
this famous New York fare is humorously contrasted with the ever more
beneficial and sensible vegetable, a food group that he only recently took a
serious look at. Although this pizza yarn might have fallen flat to audiences
in Peoria, it landed just right in Gotham.
sharing one of his many stories with the audience in his latest solo show, Michael
Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool at the Vivian Beaumont.
branched into more sentimental territory by revealing that his family rarely
used the word “love” with each other, replacing it with the more salubrious
“Take care.” Birbiglia teased this vignette out at length, remarking that he
doesn’t know whether to see this inability to say “love as a potential sign of
passive aggressive tendencies in his family or simply the result of being born
a New Englander (Birbiglia hails from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts).
title of the show is a parody of Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 masterpiece, The
Old Man and the Sea, a story about an aging fisherman down on his luck who
engages in an epic battle to catch a marlin. At first blush, it might seem
that Birbiglia’s show has no connection to Hemingway’s classic beyond the
natural element of water. But, if one considers the rich thematic material
Birniglia is investigating—death, ageing, man vs. nature--the message in Old
Man & the Pool may well parallel the one that is found in Hemingway’s
masterpiece: “Man was not made for defeat.”
oh yes. The title of the show also references Birbiglia’s boyhood memory of an
old man flagrantly powdering his privates in a pool’s locker room. No question
that the man on stage fashions stories from material that others would think is
unmentionable. But that’s part of Birbiglia’s secret. What’s off limits for
other comedians is fair game for him.
makes this solo-show so powerful, however, is that Birbiglia is talking about a
subject that most of us try to avoid like the plague: our own mortality. And,
yet Birbiglia somehow manages to find the words, images, metaphors, stories,
that allow us to look death square in the eye, and though the magic of
laughter, gain a fresh perspective on it.
January 15 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Manhattan.
more information, visit www.mikebirbigliabroadway.com
time: 1 hour; 15 minutes with no intermission.