'The Old Man & the Pool' review: Wading into Mike Birbiglia's comfort zone

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'The Old Man & the Pool' review: Wading into Mike Birbiglia's comfort zone
Mike Birbiglia in his new solo show, “The Old Man & the Pool,” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in New York, Nov. 1, 2022. The comedian once again proves his virtuosity as a narrator, weaving a new harrowing tale in his latest Broadway show. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- Mike Birbiglia knows what he’s doing. At this point, his act is baked to golden perfection. Exploring new territories or branching out into unexpected formal terrain is not in the cards for this comedian. His new solo show, “Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool,” directed by his regular collaborator Seth Barrish, is built along the same lines as his previous outings.

To wit, the circular storytelling that elegantly returns to its starting point, leaving little doubt that we will meet the first scene’s physician again at the end. As usual, the derision is mostly self-deprecating, though Birbiglia’s family is also the object of ribbing that can be infused with a touch of passive-aggressive edge. Once again, the descriptions of his health issues are graphic and groan-inducing: Birbiglia’s body is his greatest foe and keeps coming up with new ways to betray him. Other people’s bodies are just as discomforting. It’s easy to imagine an alternative universe in which Birbiglia’s shows are horror movies.

Potentially life-threatening ailments take center stage in Birbiglia’s new production, which opened Sunday at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater after playing around the country. Here he is largely concerned with his own mortality — a troubling feeling at any time, but especially for a man who is just in his mid-40s.

The story is kick-started by a checkup during which Birbiglia struggles to blow into a tube to test his breathing. “Am I having a heart attack?” he asks the doctor, who answers with the terrifyingly noncommittal “I don’t think so.”

After the breathing-test failure, he is advised to get in shape. Swimming feels like the least demanding option, and there’s a YMCA near his Brooklyn home. (Beowulf Boritt’s spare set is dominated by a graceful, wavelike structure that looks like graph paper and upon which reflective water is sometimes projected.)

It all goes as well as could be expected for a nonathletic-looking comedian. “I don’t have ‘a swimmer’s body,’” Birbiglia quips. “I have what I call ‘a drowner’s body.’”

Because apparently diseases, too, love company, he is also told he has Type 2 diabetes and really, really must exercise and watch what he eats. This, of course, sets up a new flurry of self-deprecating comments that Birbiglia deploys in his deceptively sleepy semi-monotone, which at times makes him sound as if he were startling himself.

The humor is further amplified by our acquaintance with the man onstage. Birbiglia’s persona and style are well established (from his many stage shows, movies, books, podcasts and interventions on “This American Life”), and most audience members are versed in his character bible, to borrow a term from fiction narrative. Many jokes at a recent performance were met with knowing laughter, as with the first mention of Birbiglia’s daughter, Oona, whose origin story, so to speak, was the subject of “The New One,” with which he made his Broadway debut four years ago.

Similarly, chuckles erupted when Birbiglia mentioned that a nutritionist had asked him, “How’s your sleep?” Physicians have long loomed large in his life and comedy, so fans know he has REM sleep behavior disorder, which he explored in his breakthrough show, “Sleepwalk With Me,” from 2008. They also know about the malignant tumor found in his bladder when he was 19 — do yourself a favor and don’t look up “cystoscopy” — because he has brought it up before. (On the other hand, there are no mentions of bankruptcy-inducing bills or of the failures of the U.S. health care system: Birbiglia does not riff on politics or anything topical in his act.)

Even smaller instances feel like a game of “catch the reference,” like a tossed-off line about calling his wife Clo (her name is Jen) or the pointed acknowledgment of latecomers, echoing the start of “Thank God for Jokes” (2016).

And it’s all very, very funny. In Birbiglia’s case, familiarity breeds content.

This might be interpreted as a backhanded compliment since reinvention tends to be praised in artistic circles, but it is not. Birbiglia’s virtuosity as a narrator is very real, giving him full control over the evening and the audience’s reactions. When he tried to rally the crowd into a respectful moment of silence in honor of a man who had died holding his breath in a pool, the effort was engineered to fail. And it did, especially as the laughter became ever more performatively loud. The joke was on us.

You could also consider the rehashing of certain stories and themes as part of a large-scale autobiographical enterprise. Catching up with Birbiglia at regular intervals, we are watching the construction of a lifelong narrative arc. It’s a bit like a comic, one-man version of the Michael Apted documentary series “Up,” a decadeslong project in which that director caught up with the same group of people at seven-year intervals.

I, for one, am looking forward to hearing about Birbiglia’s next medical tests, not to mention how he is going to spin tales of Oona’s growing up.

Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool’

Through Jan. 15 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Manhattan; mikebirbigliabroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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