Seeing the World Through Mike Birbiglia's Eyes in The New One
Birbiglia makes his Broadway debut with a solo show about fatherhood.
It's been an unusually depressing season on Broadway with shows about dementia, gun violence, fake news, a gorilla who exacts revenge on an entire city. Don't get me wrong. There are many excellent productions that have opened. But laughs aren't in plentiful supply around these parts, and we can use them now more than ever.
Enter Mike Birbiglia.
Best known for Sleepwalk With Me, his literary, standup, filmic account of nearly dying after walking through a second-story glass window in his sleep, Birbiglia is making his Broadway debut with The New One, now running at the Cort Theatre after a summertime engagement downtown at the Cherry Lane. And it couldn't have appeared at a better time.
The New One has more laughs per minute than any other new show on Broadway, and the production, staged by Birbigla's longtime director Seth Barrish, hasn't lost anything that made the off-Broadway version such an unabashed delight. It is a screamingly funny account of not wanting to be a father, begrudgingly becoming one, and eventually finding joy where you didn't think it would exist. Nothing will snap you out of your Theater Season Affective Disorder faster.
Birbiglia's strength as an artist is in how easily he manages to endear himself to us. He instantly has us on his side from his opening remarks, a story about how much he loves his couch, and how important it is to the relationship he has with his wife, Jen. Admissions of his masculine insecurity — needing to be knocked out to undergo a prostate exam, getting embarrassed by having to masturbate into a cup at the urologist's office — make us giggle with glee. The inside jokes he and Jen, a poet who contributed additional writing to the piece, share are entirely recognizable to anyone in the audience who has coupled. The laughs, many at his own expense, are plentiful.
Birbiglia also has some sharp edges. In The New One, they concern his worries about what it means to be a dad. He doesn't want to be a father. He doesn't really like children. Even when assured that fatherhood will bring him the most joy he's ever experienced, he sees his biggest fear come true. Having a baby removes him from the intimacy that he shared with his wife. He sees himself relegated to third position in their family, "a pudgy milk-less vice president" whose opinion doesn't matter. He can't even sleep on his beloved couch anymore. That's where the baby sleeps.
He retaliates by admitting some pretty shocking thoughts during the middle section of The New One, and the audience collectively sucks its teeth. It may turn some people off, but go with it, for a very simple reason. Whether he actually experienced what he says is anyone's guess, but it works amazingly well in the service of theatrical storytelling. Not only is this show funny, it displays Birbiglia's growth as a dramatic writer. His protagonist, Mike Birbiglia, starts off one way, goes on a journey that takes him to some pretty dark, confusing places, and comes out on the other side a changed man. It's a seemingly basic, yet well-defined character arc that should be studied.
Barrish, meanwhile, has done the near impossible: he's made a small show feel large, while still retaining its intimacy. Aaron Copp's lighting accentuates different moments in the story, Leon Rothenberg's sound inconspicuously allows Birbiglia to whisper and still have it carry to the second balcony. And Beowulf Boritt's provides a delightful surprise of a set.
Physically and emotionally, it looks and feels exactly as it did at the Cherry Lane. It helps that Birbiglia has spent his entire career modulating himself for venues that range in size. He's played the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, and theaters in cities he describes as "just an Applebee's with a dream."
Broadway is lucky to have him, and we're lucky to have him to make us laugh.