‘The Old Man & The Pool,’ Saving Mike Birbiglia’s Life and Ours
Mike Birbiglia is back after his last Broadway outing four years ago, which centered around his daughter’s birth, in The New One. In his fifth collaboration directed by the superb Seth Barrish, Birbiglia shares his intimate health secrets. You know, the one’s that are confidential, only seen by Birbiglia’s doctors. This is territory Birbiglia has circled before because he gets great laughs, sharing his marred humanity. We understand. All of our bodies are a mass of quirks, glitches and imperfections, and this is especially so if we are what doctors can’t even refer to now as this thing called “healthy.” That’s because you may be the perfect specimen of MRI wellness and drop dead tomorrow of an undetected, congenital pre-disposition to flame out. The possibility of an unannounced dropping dead with alacrity is a point Birbiglia humorously makes during his one-man show, The Old Man & the Pool, currently at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center.
The comedic writer/performer provides a wellspring of humor we heartily drink from. As we savor the long “draughts” (British spelling), from the mirth he serves with humility, we happily appreciate the refreshment for its healing power to make us forget the bedlam in the world, which Birbiglia avoids referencing. Wisely, no political topics are found in his show whose structure is less “stand-up” and more like an interactive one-act play. The interaction is the audience’s highly vocal, contented “purring,” of chortles and “lololols,” as we psychically enter each door Mike opens and receive a surprise at the abundance of gifts inside. Birbiglia is a great raconteur. Every detail connects with every other, so as we watch and listen, the golden mean spirals from beginning and comes back to smack us at the conclusion.
One key spiral centers around Mike’s stories of his bodily weaknesses. Physical perfection surrounds us in the bombardment of weight loss, cosmetic surgery, sports centers and various enhancement ads that remind us we need to improve and look “sparkling” and youthful. And then there’s Mike, showing up in jeans and a shirt pulled over his un-ripped musculature. He does not look like he can bench press 1000 pounds. How refreshing. And it is obvious his outfit has not been tailored to bulk up his physique. Here is a typical guy whose physical body is average, but whose mental acumen is exceptional. The night I saw The Old Man & The Pool, Mike’s hair was sticking up electrically, like it refused to obey the comb. How can you not like this guy? He is completely unpretentious, unpompous and easily relaxed (He has worked hard to achieve the look and the ethos.) His humor is just what we need right now. Welcome back, Mike Birbiglia!
It was about the fifth minute after Birbiglia started his riffs that I decided I loved the show. By this point I and my audience colleagues were drawn in, standing in his shoes with empathy, hooked by his magnanimity, great good will, wit, and wise self-perception. It was a pleasure to join in freely with audience members, chortling and at crucial junctures, shedding a tear or two at the poignant themes about family and his daughter. This was especially so after connecting with him over something we all have to confront, our mortal flesh and the fear of losing loved ones.
During the 80-minute performance, Birbiglia gives the audience free reign to walk with him on a guided tour into his most personal thoughts about death, dying, his childhood, wife and family. It’s a circuitous route beginning with a foray into medical charts during various doctors’ visits and dictums, that with his Type 2 diabetes and heart issues, he must do cardio. The heart issue is the first focus. This was reinforced and illustrated via projection onto a clever backdrop, a curved wall of white “graph paper” superimposed on the blue chlorinated pool (the chlorine turned into a funny riff). Breath test results were projected as a tell-tale line resembling the “normal” example of breath it takes to blow a ping pong ball up a tube (think of Ed Harris in the film The Right Stuff). Then we see Mike’s line which is short and rockets downward to oblivion.
Mike’s discussion about this is hysterical. The doctor translates the information saying the line looks like Mike is having a heart attack in the office. It’s a riotous presumption because Mike is upright and breathing normally. Meanwhile, the dialogue between Mike and the doctor about the chart line is a romp into the ridiculous. It is about this time when we think, well, maybe he should go to a Holistic doctor. When Mike tells us the doctor suggests cardio exercise, his response is even funnier. Then, we are off and running into acceptable exercise for Mike, which eventually becomes “the YMCA pool” and swimming, as all else has failed.
Let’s segue for a moment to consider the once in a life-time COVID-19 pandemic that we experienced and which is still going on, though few acknowledge it. After reading all I could discover about COVID-19, I get the significance of co-morbidities and heart issues and heart attacks (a frequent COVID-19 causation of death). Our health is everything and doing whatever we can to maximize staying alive for our families should be paramount. Our concern about living and losing life (How many of us lost loved ones because of COVID-19 or its after effects?) has been ratcheted up as a result of the over 1,100,000 deaths because of the virus that still is considered a “hoax” in some lunatic circles. So Birbiglia’s discussions about health were vital to the audience, and humorous as Mike uses it as a launching pad for the most important topics which he covers “down the road” of the show.
Somewhere between the belly laugh 15 or 16, we realize what Birbiglia is doing. He is helping us negotiate the rocky waters of existence and the existential conundrum that we had to confront shockingly these past years and still face. We are not immortal. Death may be more imminent than we realize. After the dire hell of COVID-19 for New Yorkers (Birbiglia lives in Brooklyn…he doesn’t have to mention COVID-19), we are acutely aware that as we live, we understand it is only for a blip in time and we may increase or decrease that blip as we so choose. It’s heady stuff.
Making the most of the time we have together is another theme that Birbiglia sneaks in sub rosa, as he tells stories about his health, heart disease issues in his family, the frozen silence as he says “Take care,” to his parents and never “I love you.” And most importantly, his love and the impact of his health on his daughter Oona, who is six to his forty-four.
Back to the review. Birbiglia’s storytelling and set up are heavy with detailed images that are unforgettable. There is one I’d like to evacuate from my mind, but I can’t for a number of reasons. These emerged by the end of the show. Mike describes the naked body of a man who sits on a bench in the men’s locker room at the YMCA that he saw when he was a kid around the age of six. Mike couldn’t help but stare at the man because it was the first time he had seen adult genitalia. It happened as things happen when we are kids, and the images stick with us forever and as such, we can describe them like it was yesterday. Mike’s storytelling process reveals how these “poetic” images of remembrance have a way of layering meaning through our lives. Ironically, they eventually come to bite us in the behind much later, when we have the age and experience behind us to meditate and reflect on the the past.
Birbiglia’s descriptive image of this man relates throughout. And of course, he makes sure that it comes to bite, not only him, but all of us, who by the conclusion have been so invested with appreciation for Mike’s wit, we recognize the most vital point of wisdom that Birbiglia weaves throughout. Momento mori. After the impact of having to stay home and quarantine for two months to stave even greater numbers from dying, one appreciates that reminder. And that is the thrust of Birbiglia’s pool exercise, his eating habits and his largesse at presenting himself as the key human target to laugh at. But when you figure that the only thing sacrificed is ego, which is an artificial construct to defend against death, hurt, insult, what better way to defend against these things than to ridicule and laugh at how they operate in ourselves. Nevertheless, eventually comes the reality that there is no defense against death, not even humor. This is another point Birbiglia makes. And as such, he emphasizes we must make each moment count.
Birbiglia closes with the image of the man in the locker room.. In deference to Mike because HE HATES SPOILER ALERTS, I will just comment that the guy in the locker room is one of the many threads, phrases, impressions, metaphors, images that he uses to eventually build up to the mountain top of revelation that is poignant and identifiable. The threaded metaphors beautifully set up future punchlines (though with him, his perceptions are so acute and wise, they are more than what is invoked by the word “punchline.”). They are pin pricks which sharpen and alert us to ourselves, alert us to the laziness with regard to things we should be on top of. The show combines laughter and revelation to shake us up. As Mike shares his experiences, he is saving himself, and he is throwing us a life preserver so we can follow his example and save ourselves with regard to those things in our personal lives that are not examples of “a house in order” but are examples of mess and chaos.
That said, immutable values and themes are paramount in The Old Man & the Pool. Laughing about how we deceive ourselves strengthens us in our humanity to face our mortality, which in living our lives, we tend to ignore. For example, Mike discusses how the form for the family will sat on the table for three years before he and his wife began to fill it out in earnest. This is one of those funny/unfunny stories which hit home for audience members who laughed in recognition. Mike and his wife couldn’t discuss dying. They didn’t want to think about what happens if one dies first and leaves the other spouse and that’s not even considering what happens to their daughter. Wills are tricky because we are too busy living our lives now. Culturally, we don’t really deal with death well. The best way is through humor and Mike’s show mentors how to deal with “it” through wisdom and a “healthy” dose of self-deprecation.
Birbiglia’s incredible worth is in helping us laugh about the things we fear like death or helping us receive the commonality of how a pizza (it’s incredibly bad for you), stays up and parties with you after you devoured five slices or more five hours before. Birbiglia reminds us that we need to laugh about the big and the little things because, believe it or not, they are related. We need to laugh about the fear we experience going into a doctor’s office, blowing into a tube and having such a rotten test score it charts as a heart attack. We need to chortle when our daughter shatters our self-esteem and tells us we have, “God forbid in our culture if you have this and are a celebrity, “yellow teeth.” Oona tells Mike this during one of their story times together.
Like all artists who are multifaceted (the program lists Mike as a comedian, director, actor and author who won a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Outstanding Solo Performance), Mike is an adept at understanding the wide breadth of human experience and how to share self-conscious stories which deal with immutable verities. Above all, his show, after the worst of COVID, reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. We should be open to silliness and innocence as his daughter reminds him when they read together at night. (These sweet moments and his whispery lifting of his voice to imitate hers are some of the finest in the show.) What Birbiglia’s prodigious artistry does is help us love ourselves and commune with others, whose humanity it is OK to love, too. His is an exceptional mission of comfort in this tide of times.
Traveling with his show to other parts of the country, Birbiglia knows his audience and senses what it needs based on what he needs; the purr of laughter. Regardless of his political views (we don’t know them), we understand what counts: he is a father, husband and son. And his self-ridicule reveals that he lacks the ego to present himself as “all that.” His ethos retrenches to audience laughter which he provokes with mundanities and homely quips. Audience purrs and belly laughs pace at about about every 30 seconds or as long as it takes to relate the set-up, then settle to the uproarious and witty point. It’s more of an overall build with twists upon twists, until at the end, the last twist lands with an explosion.
In The Old Man & the Pool, Birgiglia hits it out of the ballpark. The solo performance flies by, despite everyone wanting him to slow down and “make it last.”
Kudos to all that makes this happen every night until Mike Birbiglia leaves Lincoln Center. The creative team reveals their mastery in Beowulf Boritt’s sensational, fun set, Toni-Leslie James “man of the street” costume design, Aaron Copp’s nuanced and symbolic lighting design, Kai Harada’s excellent sound design (I heard every word), Hana S. Kim’s superb, astute projection design. All thanks goes to the inimitable director Seth Barrish and Birbiglia’s collaboration.
This is a superb must-see especially if you need a laugh or two or hundreds. For tickets and times go to their website: https://mikebirbigliabroadway.com/