By: Paulanne Simmons
November 21, 2022: In his newest solo show, The Old Man and The Pool, Mike Birbiglia looks to one of the most unlikely subjects for the source of humor: his own mortality. Heavy stuff, but nonetheless most people are likely to enjoy the show enormously. In fact, Birbiglia is less a comedian than a wonderful raconteur. And he even manages to throw in a few laughs, mostly at his own expense.
The Old Man and The Pool (possibly a reference to Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea) begins with Birbiglia’s breath test, which reveals he is barely alive. It then goes on to Birbiglia’s other traumas, which include a bout with bladder cancer, a battle with diabetes and his already well documented sleepwalking episodes (Sleepwalk with Me), which landed him in the hospital several years ago.
If this doesn’t sound sufficiently gruesome, Birbiglia also includes his father’s heart attack when he was fifty-six, and his follow-up heart attack, which fortunately occurred while he was on duty at a hospital, as well as the death of a beloved neighbor.
Not surprisingly, Birbiglia claims he has occasional panic attacks resulting in this inability to breathe. Many of us might be surprised he can even get up in the morning. But despite his many ailments, Birbiglia is quite limber. Director Seth Barrish has him running around the stage, lying on his back, getting up and sliding down Beowulf Boritt’s curved wall, which reminds us of the bottom of a pool, all with great energy.
And there are lighter moments in Birbiglia’s recollections: Christmas in the Birbiglia’s home, a holiday dominated by chicken parmigiana; Birbiglia’s experience with his dietician, who he claims really knows no more than the rest of us (vegetables are good for you); his harrowing encounter with male and female genitalia when his mother first took him to a swimming pool, resulting in his aversion to swimming.
Through all the trials and tribulations he blithely recounts, what makes Birbiglia funny is his matter-of-fact delivery and his perfect timing. Birbiglia’s life may sometimes spin out of control. His material does not.
The Old Man and The Pool runs through Jan. 15, 2022 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65 Street.
Photography: Emilio Madrid