Mike Birbiglia’s solo play “The Old Man and the Pool” opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway on Nov. 13, 2022. The following is Peter Debruge’s review of the same production when it opened at Center Theater Group’s Mark Taper Forum in August. The credits have been updated to reflect the details of the Broadway production.
If you’ve ever seen Mike Birbiglia before, whether on stage or screen, then “The Old Man and the Pool” feels like catching up with an old friend — albeit one with a lot more health problems than you.
To be clear: In his latest monologue, Mike Birbiglia is not the old man. At age 44, it’s a little early for that. But the lower-middle-age comic is plenty worried about his health. Birbiglia’s father had a heart attack at 56. So did his father’s father. By his telling, when his physician asked him to blow into a device designed to measure his breathing, the results were so weak, the doc thought he might be experiencing a heart attack right there in the examination room.
Birbiglia wasn’t dying, but he delivers the joke so matter-of-factly, it sounds like truth. That’s the key to Birbiglia’s style, which served him well in “The New One” (Birbiglia’s 2018 Broadway show) and “Sleepwalk With Me” (which became what the marketers used to call “a major motion picture”), and which remains the core of his charm this time around as well: He’s casual, favorite-pair-of-jeans comfortable and remarkably skilled at finding profundity in subjects well within arm’s reach of most audiences, like the need to eat better and exercise.
When it comes to the relatability of Birbiglia’s material and the self-deprecating fuddy-duddiness of his delivery, one might compare him to Bill Cosby, if that didn’t immediately bring to mind all sorts of creeptastic associations. Or Louis C.K. (see Bill Cosby above). So let’s try a different strategy.
There are joke comics and storytelling comics. Birbiglia is both. Over the course of his latest monologue, Birbiglia digresses from time to time into what sounds like stand-up territory (communicating his disappointment that AirBnBs don’t serve breakfast and are therefore guilty of false advertising, for instance). But mostly, he aims less for sparking laugh-out-loud moments than for implanting those amusing observations that provide insight into our own lives, as when he shares “the first day I saw my dad as a real person” (in the hospital, post-heart attack) or the phone call to his mom in which a moment of unusual vulnerability was met with her typical sign-off: “Take care.”
“We’re not an ‘I love you’ family,” he explains, threading the importance of overcoming such obstacles throughout what feels like an intimate conversation about his fear of mortality and figuring out life’s priorities, even if he’s the one doing all the talking. Birbiglia doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. In fact, he’s sort of pretending the opposite: When his doctor tells him to exercise, he rejects the advice, sharing pathetic stories of his track record with sports. He was a lousy wrestler (“It was like watching a paperweight be pinned by paper”) and an even worse swimmer. And don’t even get him started about the horrors he witnessed in the locker room. It was enough to put him off pools for life.
Now here he is, describing how not one but two medical professionals tried to turn him on to pools for life. It’s like listening to that inner voice in your own head — the one telling you that you can skip today’s workout (and every workout for the next year). Birbiglia is open about where that led him: straight to a case of Type 2 diabetes. When he talks about health, he sounds like a less-neurotic Spalding Gray, whose search for holistic solutions (in “Gray’s Anatomy”) blew a far smaller eye condition hilariously out of proportion.
Birbiglia talks like he’s reciting, slurring his words slightly, so you have to lean in to make out what he says. But when it comes to the laughs, his timing is impeccable, a subtle pause, a sentence that ends a beat before you’d expect or continues on into a clause that changes its meaning altogether. Little by little, he goes deep — pun absolutely not intended, but too apt to retract — getting all meaning-of-life on us, before orchestrating a gut-busting “moment of silence” that is anything but.
Standing beneath a giant sheet of chlorine-green graph paper that, depending on the lighting, looks like a huge wave or a pool full of water, Birbiglia jokes that he doesn’t have a swimmer’s body. More of a drowner’s body. Practically a river corpse body. But here he is, still alive, a little bit older, a little bit wiser and every bit as endearing as he was during the last show, advising us — in Warren Zevon’s words — to “enjoy every sandwich.” Funny thing is, you never want him to shut up.
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