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Review: Mike Birbiglia Tackles Mortality and Muscles Aches in The Old Man and The Pool

Birbiglia performs his new solo show at Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum.

Mike Birbiglia stars in the world premiere of Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool at Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Mike Birbiglia makes a triumphant return to the stage at the Mark Taper Forum with another intimate discussion in his disarming, everyman fashion. Riffing on family, health, exercise, and grammar, Center Theatre Group's production of Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool has the audience in stitches, laughing hysterically at the frailty of humanity.

Following his Broadway one-man show The New One, which played at the Ahmanson in 2019 and focused on his foray into fatherhood, The Old Man and The Pool delves into the frustration an aging body. Like many entering their middle years, Birbiglia finds his unhealthy diet has led to diabetes, forcing him to give up his favorite foods and exercise more (or to at least start). Birbiglia takes similar common occurrences and turns them into laughs by connecting with an audience who has suffered from the same ailments.

Birbiglia is a master storyteller. His delivery is relatable, and yet pinched enough to find the sardonic flavors. Who hasn't sat in a dietician's office and been told what a vegetable is and been asked generic questions? Who hasn't been told to exercise 10 days a week (well 5 but it always sounds like 10)? And who hasn't looked at a child, spouse, family member, and feared that they wouldn't be alive long enough to care for and love them? Birbiglia uses repetition for humorous effect, recalling earlier jokes to tie the 85-minute evening together.

Mike Birbiglia stars in the world premiere of Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool at Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Director Seth Barrish keeps Birbiglia on track with his pacing, though some words do wind up garbled due to Birbiglia's speedy delivery. The set by Beowulf Borritt is a bit of a mixed metaphor. The half-spherical shape looks like a crashing wave, an apt image for someone feeling his body is collapsing. But the show's title and content suggest a swimming pool, not the ocean, so it is an odd choice. Birbiglia does utilize the shape cleverly by turning the bottom curve into a sliding board. His playful shirt (costume design by Toni-Leslie James), festooned with tiny people doing calisthenics, visually toys with Birbiglia's antipathy for exercise. Aaron Copp's lighting smartly interacts with the set to convey invisible furniture, like a rectangular lighting to represent a bed.

Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man and the Pool may not make you feel better about the ticking time bomb that is your mortal body, but at least he reminds you that it's a shared experience. It's a cathartic laugh from a crowd battling mortality.

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