Stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia finds the funny in reluctant fatherhood
Stand-up comics come in a few varieties. Some you’d like to hang out with at a bar. Others you’d prefer to keep at a safe distance. A few perhaps you might like to get to know more intimately.
Mike Birbiglia is the one you hope takes you to IKEA. The guy writes hymns to his couch. “It’s a bed that hugs you,” he remarks gratefully. Simple, honest pleasures are reassuring in a dude.
Mild-mannered to the point that even when angry his mode is apologetic, Birbiglia sidles across the stage, a blur of Banana Republic. His solitary presence is curious company at the vast Ahmanson Theatre, where “The New One,” his set of comedy about reluctant fatherhood that went to Broadway and will premiere on Netflix on Nov. 26, opened Friday. Have we caught him puttering around the house on a Saturday afternoon?
Let’s call the experience relaxed. There’s no great pressure to laugh. The show is 85 minutes or so of comedy foreplay. His delivery delays punchlines only to heighten the strangeness of the humorous payoff. A diarist with first-hand experience of existential extremes, he mines the muddle of a life spent making nice as darkness rolls in.
Much of the material is drawn from familiar comic tropes. Birbiglia’s wife decides she wants to have a baby. Birbiglia objects that a child will wreck their lives. He relents, discovers his sperm are rotten swimmers, has a harrowing medical procedure and eventually becomes a delighted, disquieted dad.
If “The New One” is ever adapted into a movie, Paul Rudd must star.
Beneath the conventional surface, however, lies a Prometheus who can’t shake the memory of being chained to the rock. Birbiglia’s medical file swarms with horrors. A bout of bladder cancer when he was 19 has kept him on high alert for a sucker punch from on high.
When his doctor told him some bad news after a physical, the conjunction “and” fitted between the words “diabetes” and “Lyme disease” made him feel as though he had been told at a parent-teacher conference that his kid was getting straight Ds and had also been molested by the gym teacher. “One at a time!” he protests.
A sleep disorder that’s dangerous not only for him but for also anyone in the vicinity requires that he sleep straitjacketed in a sleeping bag in a locked room, which he’s forced to share with a cat that treats him with no respect. It was the cat’s bathroom before it became his nighttime safe haven, and the cat won’t let him forget it.
In the genial observational humor about marriage that he indulges in here, Birbiglia plays his own straight man. The jokes are usually on him. He doesn’t tell mother-in-law groaners — thank God — but if he did, he’d be the butt of them. His wife, he says, speaks to him in a voice “that has a thread count of 600,” a remark reminiscent of King Lear’s line about Cordelia (“Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman”). Birbiglia’s patriarchal nature is also soft, gentle and low. It’s sometimes more pronounced in what he leaves out of his anecdotes than in what he includes. But to his credit, he’s retrofitted his retro material for a new age.
Still, his act depends on the solidarity of men just like himself — married heterosexual city dwellers who a generation ago would have been pushing lawnmowers on weekends — and the women who lovingly endure them. This can feel like a closed circle in 2019. But his proud masculine bumbling isn’t meant to exclude. Its appeal, however, may be more fully appreciated by a certain kind of mainstream audience that doesn’t necessarily think of itself as mainstream.
The production, directed by Seth Barrish, is mostly bare, keeping the focus squarely on Birbiglia. A scenic coup occurs on Beowulf Boritt’s set, but this is a comedy show, not a play or work of performance art. The amplification that’s required for such a large house is off-putting. At points of heightened emotion, the sound is deafening. It’s a sign that something is out of whack between artist and venue.
Not that you’d hold it against Birbiglia, who’s so agreeable that you’re happy to hear more about his new couch or latest health scare. A surrogate pal while onstage, he’s always admirably himself. And like those friends who stay in our good graces, he knows just when to leave.
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