Before King Arthur, joined by a 30-piece orchestra, takes reign at the Vivian Beaumont Theater next spring for the musical Camelot, Lincoln Center audiences have the opportunity to enjoy a winter of the comedian Mike Birbiglia’s decidedly plebeian stage ambitions in his latest show The Old Man & The Pool. That’s not a slight against Birbiglia, whose “costume” looks like he plucked it from his own unremarkable closet, since he himself implicitly acknowledges the oddity of his presence in such a hoity-toity environment. Though, of course, one could see this attitude as false modesty, or at least a bit of a front, considering that Broadway audiences have paid top dollar for Birbiglia’s solo philosophizing before.
His theatrical routines, more thematically composed and pensive than the typical stand-up variety, are essentially an ongoing performative autobiography that began off-Broadway in 2008 with the very well-received Sleepwalk with Me. The title refers to a terrifying incident in which Birbiglia jumped out a window while in a dream state, a behavioral disorder that still requires elaborate bedtime safeguards. In The Old Man & The Pool, that somnambulant near-death experience, along with a youthful bout of bladder cancer, serves as the foundation for the now middle-aged Birbiglia’s thoughts about the big sleep that awaits us all.
Still, rest assured, most of what Birbiglia says is funny, even for any fans well aware that Birbiglia is leading us somewhere that is not. Given the eponymous Hemingway allusion, the show’s mortal endpoint is obvious, but the journey to it is full of surprising, and sometimes touching, laughs. They begin with an annual health checkup that includes a worrisomely poor performance on a spirometer, the ball-and-hose machine that measures lung function. The results baffle Birbiglia’s doctor, since they seem to indicate he was having a heart attack while taking the test.
After a referral to an equally flummoxed cardiologist, Birbiglia’s potential medical problem is sidelined, only to be replaced during a later checkup by a verifiable one: Type 2 diabetes. Instead of wallowing, though, in bodily concerns, Birbiglia uses them for smart observational humor about the myriad absurdities that underpin our healthcare system and what we do, especially after a jolting doctor’s visit, to try to aid our personal longevity. Birbiglia takes the usual path of physical fitness and better eating, but hilarious obstacles to wellness soon confront him like a dismissive YMCA swimming instructor and family members fond of stuffing each other full of chicken parmigiana for the holidays. One of them is his father, who had the first of two heart attacks at the age of 56, an ominous paternal milestone Birbiglia, 44 as of this past June, feels predestined to encounter, too, not least because his grandfather was also 56-years-old when he keeled over and died from his own cardiac arrest.
Through context and cadence, Birbiglia elicits a guffaw from the latter’s untimely demise before repurposing his mastery of these twin comedic necessities into poignant reflections about his young daughter. Her arrival in the world was the subject of Birbiglia’s last Broadway show The New One, which Birbiglia also presented with charmingly self-deprecating honesty. Some truths, however, are impossible to deliver with a beguiling smile, and in The Old Man & The Pool Birbiglia can’t fake one when revealing what keeps him awake at night: it’s not a man’s fear of death but, rather, a father’s terror at leaving his child behind.
Having guided Sleepwalk with Me, The New One, and The Old Man & The Pool to the stage, director Seth Barrish has formed a partnership with Birbiglia that clearly offers the comedian the creative comfort to easily expose what isn’t easy. But the Vivian Beaumont Theater is still somewhat of an awkward fit for that solitary soul-churning, given that Birbiglia and Barrish are completely uninterested in exploiting the space’s visual and aural potential. Apart from dimming the lights for the sad parts (design by Aaron Copp), the show’s only other noticeable non-Birbiglia elements are a stool that sort of functions like a security blanket for the comedian and a large wavy piece of graph paper, from set designer Beowulf Boritt, which occasionally transforms into a canvas for Hana S. Kim’s too-on-the-nose projections.
The Old Man & The Pool is also not as narratively tight as it should be, with Birbiglia stretching out the show’s conclusion through a puckish, and eventually tiresome, admonishment of the audience for laughing at a joke about someone’s ludicrous death in a swimming pool. At this point, Birbiglia comes across like a schoolboy whose oral presentation fell just short of the assignment’s required length (or what a Lincoln Center crowd feels is fair temporal value for the ticket price). Birbiglia’s genial jabs at late-arriving attendees are a much more enjoyable time waster, offering those of us who prize promptness a haughty chuckle. But, even if we’re not, Birbiglia certainly is better than that.
Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & The Pool (through January 15, 2023)
Lincoln Center Theater
Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-362-7600 or visit https://www.mikebirbigliabroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 25 minutes without an intermission