Review: The Old Man and the Pool Is a Hysterical Look at Mortality From Mike Birbiglia
The writer of Sleepwalk With Me and The New One creates his best show to date.
Mike Birbiglia's stage shows have always explored death in one way or another. In Thank God for Jokes, it was the death of comedy; in The New One, it was the way a marriage changes when a child is born. More literally, there's Sleepwalk With Me, which recounted his real-life experience jumping out of a second-story glass window, and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, which recounts his getting T-boned by a drunk driver. After all that, The Old Man and the Pool, now running on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theater after a cross-country tour, is Birbiglia's most literal consideration of mortality yet. And it happens to be the best show he's ever written.
The Old Man and the Pool picks up roughly where The New One left off. Daughter Oona is three when Mike realizes his health is a ticking time bomb. In addition to Type 2 Diabetes, he so badly fails a pulmonary function test that his physician isn't sure he's not having a heart attack right there in the office. His medical history doesn't paint a rosier picture: his father and grandfather both had heart attacks at 56, and Mike himself is a survivor of bladder cancer and the ongoing sleep disorder that led him to literally jump out the aforementioned window while slumbering. On the advice of his cardiologist, Mike takes up swimming at the local YMCA. Reluctant at first, his love for his wife and child ultimately provides the dangling carrot in front of him (rather than the pizza it used to be).
That the Beaumont — cavernous even when being overrun by giant dinosaurs — feels like such a natural home for this production is a testament to both the genuine rapport Birbiglia has with the audience, and Barrish's nimble staging (Barrish has directed all of Birbiglia's shows and knows exactly how the comedian operates). In that respect, The Old Man and the Pool feels not quite like the culmination of their past work together, but the pinnacle of all the work they've done since Sleepwalk With Me premiered in 2008. The script is tighter, the jokes are sharper and funnier (the climactic bit, a moment of silence that's anything but, is hysterical), and the storytelling is blisteringly sincere, filled with the kind of authentic emotions many comedians tend to shy away from.
There's no sudden deluge of toys dropping from above like in The New One, but Beowulf Boritt provides an ingenious set regardless. It's a curved monolith of graph paper that lighting designer Aaron Copp and projection designer Hana S. Kim turn into the blue-tiled floor of a swimming pool. Toni-Leslie James costumes Birbiglia in an aqua-colored button down that mirrors the pattern, a simple yet ingenious touch. There is no need to fill the massive stage; in fact, it's effectively sliced in half. By doing so, the production achieves a level of intimacy I've never seen in that space, and The Old Man and the Pool is all the better for it.
In past conversations I've had with Birbiglia, he has cited two inspirations for finding the truth in difficult or near-death experiences: Martin Moran's The Tricky Part (a solo show that Barrish also directed off-Broadway), in which the author recounts his past sexual abuse at the hands of a camp counselor, and Richard Pryor's Live on the Sunset Strip, where Pryor discusses freebasing cocaine and subsequently catching on fire. "In terms of talking about something that is life-threatening and making it funny," Birbiglia said to me in 2016, "how do you do that? I venture to say that you play it real."
In that respect, The Old Man and the Pool is Birbiglia at his most truthful. While it doesn't at all deal with the pandemic, there is an emotional honesty to the piece that makes it feel like it only could have been born following our worldwide collective trauma. You come away feeling like you've met Mike Birbiglia, the man, for the very first time, for real. I can't wait to see where he goes from here.