'Mike Birbiglia's The New One': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Mike Birbiglia in 'The New One'
Even better than the old ones.
1/20/2019

The acclaimed comedic monologist of 'Sleepwalk With Me' and 'My Girfriend's Boyfriend' returns with another personally revealing one-man show.

The following is a review of the off-Broadway premiere of The New One, which played a summer 2018 engagement at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The production has since transferred intact to Broadway's Cort Theatre, officially opening Nov. 11 in a limited run through Jan. 20.

Don't let Mike Birbiglia's appearance fool you. The stand-up comedian/monologist is the very definition of rumpled, his slightly doughy physique not exactly flattered by his typical uniform of khakis and ill-fitting casual shirts. But as he's demonstrated in his acclaimed one-man shows Sleepwalk With Me, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and Thank God for Jokes, his comedic observational skills are sharp as a tack. His talent is again on display in this latest piece, The New One.

If my comments about Birbiglia's appearance seem harsh, don't feel bad for him. Birbiglia's humor is marked by the sort of self-deprecation that fueled the careers of predecessors like Rodney Dangerfield and Phyllis Diller. But while those comedians' routines always had an element of shtick, Birbiglia seems deeply sincere in his lack of self-regard. It makes him all the funnier and more relatable, as in this show when he delivers a lengthy list of reasons for why he didn't want to have a child, most of which have to do with his own inadequacies. Not that his motivations are entirely self-centered. "I've lost a lot of great friends to kids," he laments.

Nor is his reluctance to procreate borne out of an inability to commit. He makes it very clear that he's very much in love with his wife. He also loves his couch. He rhapsodizes about it at length at the start of the show and refers to it lovingly throughout the evening. "It's like a bed that hugs you," he explains. Not to mention that a couch is entirely non-judgmental. It's happy to go along with you when all you want to do is watch TV and eat pizza.

The story Birbiglia tells during the evening is hardly revelatory or unusual. It is mainly concerned with him and his wife deciding to have a child (actually, she did most of the deciding), their difficulties conceiving and the physical and emotional stress of dealing with a newborn. There are the occasional exotic detours, such as his amusing account of having sex with a prostitute in Amsterdam, but most of the subject matter would be easily contained in a broadcast network sitcom.

More than his choice of topics, it is Birbiglia's disarming amiability and sharp wit that makes the performer such a treasure. He draws you in with his seemingly casual style, making the audience feel like he's telling his story for the first time and just for them. When the revelations become intensely personal, he drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, forcing you to lean forward just to hear what he's saying. By the end of the evening, you feel less like an audience member than an old friend.

Which is not to downplay the performer's incredibly sharp wit and gift for wordplay. His pieces are peppered with hysterical one-liners that sneak up on you like comedic stealth bombs. They're delivered in such a subtle, conversational manner that sometimes it takes a few seconds for them to register. But don't take too long processing them, because another hilarious joke is just around the corner.

It takes tremendous skill to come across in such an unskilled manner. Birbiglia has obviously mastered it. It's always hard to figure out exactly what the director contributes to such a piece, but Seth Barrish, Birbiglia's longtime collaborator, is clearly on the same wavelength. The staging here couldn't be simpler, except for one jaw-dropping sight gag that's too delicious to reveal. But it perfectly serves the performer and his material. That the show is being staged in such intimate confines only makes it all the more special.

Venue: Cort Theatre, New York
Cast: Mike Birbiglia
Writer: Mike Birbiglia; additional material by Jennifer Hope Stein

Director: Seth Barrish
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Lighting designer: Aaron Copp
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Executive producer: Ira Glass

Presented by Kevin McCollum, Iris  Smith, Triptuk Studios, Chris & Crystal Sacca, Sing Out, Louise! Productions, Jam Theatricals, Ashley De Simone, Lucas McMahon