Mike Birbiglia Becomes a Grown-up in The New One
Birbiglia returns to New York City with his latest stand-up solo play at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
The first thing we notice about Mike Birbiglia when he walks onto the Cherry Lane Theatre stage is that there's a glow about him. He's noticeably trimmer now than he was during his last off-Broadway run. He looks more put together in a faded blue T-shirt and khakis as opposed to his usual baggy flannels. His delivery seems to have softened just a little bit. He just seems like a new person. So does the title of his latest stand-up play, The New One, only refer to the fact that this is a new show, or does it reference Mike Birbiglia himself?
Birbiglia opens with a riff on furniture shopping. When you're in your 20s, you can just find a couch on the street — someone else's garbage — bring it home, and be OK with it. At some point, you reach the age where you want to buy a fresh couch, and thus will start the rest of your life. He and his wife, Jennifer Hope Stein, celebrated their wedding on the couch; they've watched movies and eaten birthday cakes on it. They've had great times. Then someone infiltrated his happy domesticity.
Suddenly, we realize that the "New One" of the title is a triple-edged sword. It is his newest show, of course, but it becomes clearer why Birbiglia seems a little softer and warmer. This 80-minute monologue is about Birbiglia learning to conquer his past traumas (for instance, the sleepwalking that almost killed him but instead turned him into an indie celebrity comedian) and putting aside his negative feelings in order to enjoy a role he never previously wanted to play.
Directed by Seth Barrish (who has helmed all of Birbiglia's past solo shows), The New One is original perspective on a familiar situation. Birbiglia is at the height of his powers as a storyteller, and his innate drollness earns laughs from particularly embarrassing subjects like stopping at a roadside Starbucks to deal with diarrhea, or having to undergo surgery to repair a varicocele in his testicle. Really, the laughs are nonstop. There's not a single lull.
But it's also surprisingly tender, particularly in the later section, when, as aided by Beowulf Boritt's ingenious set, the tone shifts slightly and Birbiglia learns how to live with his unexpected guest, the "New One" herself. At first unwelcome — he likens her arrival with being evicted from his own life — Birbiglia eventually realizes that there's nothing better than getting to experience the world through someone else's eyes. Especially when there's a couch involved.