Reviews

Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & The Pool *****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

November 13, 2022: Comedian—or better, humorist—Mike Birbiglia’s life may be more a bowl of cherry pits than cherries, but he still manages to live and laugh at it all. And in his hilarious solo show, Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & The Pool (previously seen at three major regional theatres), he even gets a nearly full house at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre—many of whom may have similar problems—to laugh along with him for most of its 85 laugh-a-minute minutes. While it’s yet another in the trend of monologue-driven plays (including those with more than one character) I’ve recently been noting with dismay, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Mr. Birbiglia has been doing these solo shows for years, his last example, The New One, having mercilessly tickled my ribs in 2018, as reported on this site. As directed by Seth Barrish, his usual collaborator, he’s a maestro of the form.

Mike Birbiglia

By: Samuel L. Leiter

November 13, 2022: Comedian—or better, humorist—Mike Birbiglia’s life may be more a bowl of cherry pits than cherries, but he still manages to live and laugh at it all. And in his hilarious solo show, Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & The Pool (previously seen at three major regional theatres), he even gets a nearly full house at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre—many of whom may have similar problems—to laugh along with him for most of its 85 laugh-a-minute minutes. While it’s yet another in the trend of monologue-driven plays (including those with more than one character) I’ve recently been noting with dismay, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Mr. Birbiglia has been doing these solo shows for years, his last example, The New One, having mercilessly tickled my ribs in 2018, as reported on this site. As directed by Seth Barrish, his usual collaborator, he’s a maestro of the form.

Mike Birbiglia

A boyish guy living in Brooklyn with his wife Jennie and daughter Oona, Mr. Birbiglia has had enough run-ins with health issues to make him stare at his mortality right in its face, even though he’s only in his mid-40s. Very much aware that his grandfather and father, a doctor, both died of heart attacks at 56, he has cause for concern when, during an annual checkup, he has barely enough breath to move the ball in a tube the doctor has him blow into. A cardiologist recommends that he strengthen his heart through cardio exercise. Regardless of his aversion to pools (all that pee, all that chlorine!), swimming at the local YMCA seems the likeliest solution; the doctor’s request that he do it five times a week inspires a terrific bit of back and forth in which Michael Phelps figures, but I’ll leave it at that. And, of course, we now learn why the show’s subtitle is “The Old Man and the Pool.” As for the old man, you’ll have to see the show to appreciate that as well.

Mr. Birbiglia, dressed—thanks to Toni Leslie-James—unremarkably in sneakers, slacks, and a long-sleeved shirt worn outside his pants, has the kind of amiable guy-next-door persona that embraces his audience as if the event were taking place in a venue much more intimate than the Beaumont. His slightly high-pitched voice, delivered in a conversational drawl, never strains for effect; many of his most effective lines are practically toss-aways. He’ll say something moderately funny in his normal voice, then drop it for a moment to add an afterthought, and get an even bigger reaction. 

Mike Birbiglia

His stories of health issues include heart problems, bladder cancer, Type 2 Diabetes, and a sleep disorder that makes him act out his dreams—he once walked through a glass door—while he’s having them. Nevertheless, he discusses them with casual good nature, entwined with accounts of how these relate to his family life, which make us feel like we somehow know him. The pool stories, which dominate, are especially funny, and, to emphasize them, designer Boritt Beowulf has created a backdrop resembling a pale green sheet of tile that curves like paper onto the floor, and can also serve for projections showing words or images. Aaron Copp’s lighting navigates the narrative with surprisingly subtle variations.

Mr. Birbiglia’s seemingly off-the-cuff memories touch on his youthful experiences as a reluctant high school wrestler whose chief strategy was to get the ordeal over as fast as possible by getting pinned, which didn’t work when that was also his opponent’s strategy; his childhood experiences seeing vaginas and penises in pool locker rooms; his pondering such conundrums as signs that say “Slippery when wet”; his family’s preference for saying “take care” instead of “I love you”; his obsession with pizza (even the word “plaza” can blow him away), not to mention chicken parmesan, and so on. The swimming lessons he takes at the YMCA are another source of hilarity as he gradually becomes more adept at the sport, even to the point of equipping himself with all the necessary equipment and rhapsodizing on its pleasures. 

Mike Birbiglia

Although craftily crafted, the monologue has a stream-of-consciousness affect that allows for generating amusement out of things like how his family coped with black mold in their apartment by renting an Airbnb, the complications of making a will, the imminence of death from unexpected sources (like being hit on the head by a falling coconut), how the loudness of someone’s doorbell is a sign of how rich they are, the significance of nutritionists, and too many other things, all of which he turns to comic gold. 

Mr. Birbiglia so successfully befriends us that he gets away with having the house lights turned up to single out individuals for not complying when he asks for a moment of silence for a dead person. At another moment, he asks the audience to repeat lines after him. Usually, audiences are hesitant to respond to such requests, but not the one I saw at Lincoln Center when a sea of balding and whitehaired auditors responded in one loud, mask-muffled voice, like kids in a kindergarten class.

You may not pee in the pool at the Beaumont, but I can’t guarantee you won’t pee in your pants. If you’re in the dumps, perhaps because you, too, have been contemplating life’s evanescence, I can think of no better way to cheer you up than a visit to Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool, whose motto should be, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”

Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool *****
Vivian Beaumont Theatre (at Lincoln Center)
150 W. 65th Street, NYC
Through January 15, 2022
Photography: Emilio Madrid

Mike Birbiglia