Mike Birbiglia’s ‘The New One’ on Broadway. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
There are two important things to know about the writer of this review before proceeding. First, the initial thought in response to her editor’s email invitation to review Mike Birbiglia’s The New One on Broadway was “Wait, who is Mike Birbiglia?” And second, she was in urgent need of a good laugh.
Regarding the latter, who isn’t nowadays? Correction: not just a good laugh. A great laugh of the belly-contracting, tear duct stimulating, at times uncontrollable variety. A sequence of laughs that rocks you awake. Moreover, laughter in community. Not social community but in real life (IRL as the kids say) community achieved off the apps and amongst fellow gut-level laughers, like the woman sitting to my left whose hyena-like screeches prompted Birbiglia to lightly tease he was concerned her response was “at him.” (It wasn’t, she seemed not only vigorously entertained but enamored.)
Regarding the former, my short answer after seeing his latest solo show and Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre is Mike Birbiglia is a brilliant storyteller (and the first straight, white man in a while to make me laugh so hard I cried). The longer answer is he’s that guy from Billions, Orange is the New Black, Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City. He’s that guy who wrote and starred in Sleepwalk With Me, an indie film co-starring Lauren Ambrose about his struggles with REM sleep behavior disorder. He’s that guy who wrote a Thurber prize nominated New York Times best-seller Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories. And he’s that frequent contributor to NPR nominated for the Kurt Vonnegut Award for humor last year.
The Cort Theatre has been home to comedic solo shows including Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America (2009), Mario Cantone’s Laugh Whore (2004), and in the 1990s, John Leguizamo’s Freak. Birbiglia joins this lineage having written and performed My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Thank God for Jokes (filmed for Netflix) and fresh off a sold-out summer run of The New One at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre.
Perhaps an awareness of where he might be in terms of name recognition and Broadway brand awareness (Springsteen on Broadway is a few hundred feet west on 48th Street) contributes to an endearing humility from the moment the khaki-clad, 40-year-old-boy-next-door Birbiglia wanders onto the empty stage towards a single stool while fussing with his mic pack and headset.
In a navy button down and sneakers he could be Paul Rudd’s younger brother or an accountant on casual Friday. He looks up, scans the room and smiles with a twinkle in his eyes. What follows is nothing short of beautiful.
Excuse me, are you texting? He says this to a woman in the front row. He lets us know the lights are, in fact, on — that he sees us and we see him. Less than ten minutes later, Are you filming?! He shouts it out to the balcony. You could actually feel Birbiglia’s pain which he swiftboats into jokes as he offers a dismal projection of how theater may eventually become a room of people holding up their phones. It was hilarious. The audience was utterly disarmed, then on his side and in the palm of his (phone free) hands.
The first 15 minutes or so are devoted to Birbiglia’s affection for a piece of furniture. Couched (haha) as the story before the story, what follows is an exploration of his existential dilemma of whether or not to become a father. He sees himself as either unfit, unready or simply not born that way. We learn about his family, from his brother who had children and subsequently lost his cool, to his poet wife with the soothing voice he calls Chlo but is really named Jen. (J. Hope Stein, whose writing is interwoven throughout the show).
Then there are the details of his medical history, from the sleep disorder that once lead him to jump out of a second story window to a penile condition treated by another of the characters he brings to life, Doctor Kaplan. We learn about Birbiglia’s first visit to Amsterdam (evoking the first noticeable change in Aaron Copp’s lighting design from bright wash to Red Light District) and why New York City’s recycling sham is like a sign of the apocalypse. All of which brought me and the audience to places of laughter that made the Broadway house feel like a comedy coliseum. The response was so active, visceral, and unbelievably alive.
As a woman without children who is currently on the fence, the Shakespearean level “to be or not to be” inquiry about parenthood resonated deeply. The terrain is hardly unexplored by comedians of both genders, but what distinguishes Birbiglia from others is his ability to marry the sharp observational (yes, video of someone else’s child can be far less entertaining than popular YouTube cat videos) and achingly personal: Would a sleep disorder lead him to throw future kid across the room like a football?
With grounded, moment-to-moment delivery aided by director Seth Barrish (who has directed Birbiglia’s previous solo shows and currently serves as co-artistic director of The Barrow Group), the trajectory of Birbiglia’s journey peaks in glorious ways, and the resolution is deeply satisfying.
Birbiglia’s vulnerability, impeccable comic timing and comfortable delivery (no matter who the target, it never sounds aggressive) are comedic and Broadway gold. And while he’s already been on the map for over a decade, my guess is this will bump up his visibility considerably until eventually, Mike Birbiglia becomes a household name.
Mike Birbiglia’s The New One on Broadway
148 West 48th Street, NYC
Through January 20, 2019
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.