Part of his success is due to his likeable, Everyman-ish qualities. Birbiglia’s stage persona is that of an overgrown kid who knows the time has arrived to put on the yokes that come with getting older but who is not especially thrilled about it. “Birbigs” looks at the big confusing world with a not-so-easy mix of wonderment and apprehension. He’s a pokey puppy, not quite confident that he’s fully housebroken.
We likely identify with this persona in part because we too tend to be slackers and procrastinators when it comes to living up to our full human potential. In his current Broadway show, The New One (which played a limited engagement Off-Broadway earlier this year), Birbiglia speaks at one point of New Yorkers’ sincere intentions about recycling discarded materials—and also of their abject failure to do so stringently and consistently. We’re all a little lazy, on a day-to-day basis. But we nevertheless hope that—like Mike—we will rise to the occasion when we absolutely have to.
Partly, though, we like Birbiglia simply because he’s such an amusing fellow. The tics in his shtick are actually pretty easy to single out: the slack-mouthed mumbling that pegs him as somebody just going through the motions much of the time; his generation-based “uptalk,” which sends his voice up into falsetto-land, especially when he emits a startled “I know!” after something he’s said generates an audible audience response; his tendency to pause at an unexpected place within a sentence, or to break into a grin, suddenly, and for no discernable reason. All of this, for all we know, may be carefully choreographed, down to the tiniest twitch of an eyebrow. But it comes off as completely fresh, natural and unrehearsed.
The New One, directed by Seth Barrish, is about Birbiglia and his wife’s decision to become parents, the struggles they go through to arrive at pregnancy, and his fretfulness about how becoming a family man will change his life and identity. This is familiar comedic territory but Birbiglia gives it new energy, thanks to the telling details in his stories. For instance, we’ve all heard jokes or seen sitcom bits about how clinics use pornography to help guys produce lab samples of sperm. Birbiglia’s response to the situation is unexpected: he takes the experience mostly in stride, but he is both bemused and amused by the extreme genres of porn provided at the clinic he visits.
The show unfolds on the largely unadorned stage of the Cort Theatre. Beowulf Boritt is credited as scenic designer. Perhaps his efforts were devoted largely to one surprising staging element that occurs late in the show. During the early parts of the play, Birbiglia stalks the empty stage—back and forth, then in circles—like an expectant father in an old movie, who paces the delivery room with cigars at the ready.
In the course of the play, he experiences a range of personal reactions: resistance to the very idea of becoming a parent; improved self-regard as he commits to the pregnancy project and makes a physical sacrifice when it’s discovered that he’s the culprit causing infertility problems; a sense of resentment once the baby arrives and he finds himself excluded from the mother-and-child bonding moments. Washing over all of these reactions is the bitter realization that he’s not really expected to weigh in on any of this because, hey, he’s just the father, and it’s selfish to take any slights personally.
Aaron Copp’s lighting design helps Birbiglia and Barrish with changes in mood—especially effective is a transition from the shadows of the blue whale at the Museum of Natural History into a moment of post-partum glare. Copp, however, may be a little too literal in a sequence in which Birbiglia recalls a visit to Amsterdam’s red-light district. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design also lends nice touches to certain scenes. Audience members should remember to listen for an “Easter egg” surprise in the lyrics of the show’s exit music.
While we never doubt that Birbiglia will eventually embrace the idea of being a parent, it’s great fun to see exactly how he arrives at that point. And the kicker is that his growing family responsibilities will likely provide raw material for future Birbiglia shows. So, thank God for yokes.
Mike Birbiglia’s The New One (through January 20, 2019)
Cort Theatre, 138 W 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.thenewone.com
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission