Mike Birbiglia is so popular he can joke about cancer and diabetes and still fill up a Broadway theater.
“The Old Man and the Pool,” opening tonight at the Vivian Beaumont, recalls the title of Hemingway’s novella, “The Old Man and the Sea,” and can be likewise interpreted as being about the struggle against death, except it’s funny. An engaging standup comedian even (especially?) when riffing on uncomfortable subjects like illness and aging and ugly genitalia, Birbiglia, in his fifth comic monologue (the second one on Broadway) has put together a show that’s not his best, but it’s his latest, and that is likely enough for his fans.
Birbiglia, who is 44 years old, is not the old man in the title. Rather, the old man is one of the (many) reasons Birbiglia resisted his doctor’s urgent suggestion that he start exercising. This is after Birbiglia, who has a history of serious health issues, took a “birthday cake” breath test (blowing into a device as if blowing out candles), which indicated such poor lung capacity that his doctor worried he might be having a heart attack right there in the examining room.
Standing, sitting or sprawling on a blue-checkered set by Beowulf Boritt that looks like a cross between a pool and a medical graph, Birbiglia explains that his memories of past physical exertion are not happy ones. He was a disaster as a member of his school’s wrestling team (cue a string of self-deprecating anecdotes.) He despised swimming from a very young age, based on his experiences at the local YMCA pool – at five years old, when his mother brought him into the women’s locker room, and he was eye-level with a room full of vaginas; then at six, with a room full of penises; then at seven, when he witnessed an old man sitting down powdering (and scratching) his testicles. That, combined with the smell of chlorine and the many pounds of urine in the pool, made him vow never to set foot in a YMCA pool again, even though there was now one within walking distance from his Brooklyn home that his doctor advised him to go to five times a week for cardio.
As much raconteur as jokester, Birbiglia still provides a steady stream of laugh lines, with the comic timing of the pro that he is — although he sometimes sacrifices vocal clarity for the sake of the comic rhythms, slurring his words or uttering punchlines under his breath. When his doctor sends him to a cardiologist for a second opinion, he riffs: “Even the phrase ‘second opinion’ makes me nervous. I was under the impression this first analysis was fact-based. I didn’t know we were taking swings in the dark. If I knew it were opinion time I’d point out that I don’t enjoy sitting on paper. It makes me feel like a chicken. And I feel you could digitize some of those forms in that waiting room. I feel like I’ve filled a few of those out before. Those are some of my opinions.”
The patient eventually relents, and begins exercising, because his father had a heart attack when he was 56, his grandfather had one when he was 56; Birbiglia realizes that when he reaches the age of 56, his daughter Oona will be 19.
His daughter was the subject, more or less, of his previous monologue, “The New One,” which marked his Broadway debut in 2018, and was similar in several ways to his current show: It included a long, blunt account of his many illnesses and conditions (“…my body’s a lemon.”), “The New One” was better structured than “The Old Man & The Pool” as a theatrical monologue rather than just a standup routine, but, like the new show, there were many minutes devoted to riffs and shtick that had little evident connection to the ostensible topic. It would be unfair to complain that “The Old Man & the Pool” recycles old material – after all, Birbiglia is talking about the same person, himself — but the digressions and shtick make the new show feel fresher than it would be otherwise.
An example of a digression: He analyzes the phrase “take care” — which he calls a passive-aggressive command – that his mother uses, in lieu of explicit expressions of affection. “We’re not an ‘I love you’ family.”
An example of a shtick: Fifteen minutes into the show he freezes, and stares at a late-arriving theatergoer – and then quickly summarizes everything that went on so far just for her.
Another example of a shtick: Throughout the show, Birbiglia talks about the signs in the pool, most of which are indications that plenty of people are doing exactly what is forbidden:
-“Please don’t pee our pool”
“Slippery when wet”
“Please remain properly covered”
“Please shower before entering the pool”
“no breath holding”
This last one baffles him until somebody confides that two men recently engaged in a contest to see which one could hold their breath the longer under water, and (he mimics sotto voce), “one of them died.” When the audience laughs, Birbiglia expresses surprise and disappointment: A man died! We need to have a moment of silence for him. His effort to make the audience stop laughing and observe a moment of silence goes on for a considerable length of time. Some might experience this as growing hilarity; some might find it too long. But it certainly demonstrates, if we needed any more proof, that at a Birbiglia show, it’s hard to stop laughing.
Mike Barbiglia: The Old Man & The Pool
Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center through January 15, 2023
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $48 to $268
Written and performed by Mike Birbiglia
Directed by Seth Barrish
Sets by Beowulf Boritt
Costumes by Toni-Leslie James
Lighting by Aaron Copp
Sound by Kai Harada
Projections by Hana S. Kim