Broadway review by Adam Feldman
In the late 1950s, when a growing number of comedians began dabbling in dark subject matter and social and political satire, the umbrella term sick comedy was used to cover a range of artists from Lenny Bruce and Jules Feiffer to Tom Lehrer and Nichols and May. The longform comic storyteller Mike Birbiglia gives it a more literal spin: He draws much of his humor from the well of his own actual illnesses. Birbiglia’s breakthrough solo, Sleepwalk with Me, dealt with his extreme form of somnambulism; subsequent shows, including Broadway’s The New One, have also brushed on questions of mortality. The latest Mike check-up, the funny and endearing The Old Man & the Pool, dives back into questions of life and death, delivered with a goofy gallows grin that helps the medicine go down.
“Dives” is perhaps the wrong word for Birbiglia’s approach; he’s more of a wader. His new yarn centers on visits to doctors—to address troubling breathing issues and his family history of cardiac arrest—but also includes long and enjoyable digressions about his childhood experiences with public swimming. Birbiglia doesn’t wallow in his suffering, but he doesn’t go that deep; part of his great charm as a performer is in the way he deflects pity with stoic geniality, mentioning potentially grave issues (such as what sound like anxiety attacks) lightly and fleetingly, almost in passing. He’s in the pool, but you never worry that he’s really going to drown. He’s having too much fun in there, splashing around with us.
The material itself is almost secondary, and at times it is pretty familiar: faintly nostalgic observational humor about elderly men in locker rooms and the amount of urine in pools. But the comedian—directed as usual by Seth Barrish, with input from This American Life’s Ira Glass—delivers it with becomingly sly modesty, smiling and shrugging at his own jokes while poised against Beowulf Boritt’s curving set (which suggests a wave of a graph paper). Like all of Birbiglia’s joints, The Old Man & the Pool is carefully structured: The chatty sidetracks always loop back to the central path. Birbiglia is an expert at controlling the pace and energy of the evening, and the thrust stage of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater helps him maintain an appealing closeness to the crowd. Only once, at the performance I attended, did he seem to lose control over the proceedings: when one woman in the audience, despite his entreaties, literally could not stop herself from laughing. As problems go, that’s a nice one for a comedian to have.
The Old Man & the Pool. Vivian Beaumont Theater (Broadway). By Mike Birbiglia. Directed by Seth Barrish. With Birbiglia. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission.
Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool | Photograph: Courtesy Emilio Madrid