Mike Birbiglia’s mind wanders into the strangest places. Ever wondered what would happen if an iPhone could shoot bullets? No? Birbiglia has, and while his solo show, “Sleepwalk With Me,” may be a little lightweight as drama, his consistently engaging digressions keep the aud laughing at problems that probably wouldn’t be all that amusing outside the theater. There’s the writer-performer’s cancer, for one thing, and then there’s a sleep disorder that nearly killed him. “It was less funny at the time,” Birbiglia admits, but that’s all right — it’s plenty funny now.
Birbiglia walks onto Beowulf Boritt’s immaculate set through its one defect: a shattered pane of blue plastic that looks like someone about Birbiglia’s size has been tossed through it (this isn’t too far from the case, as he later explains). An expert at playing dumb, Birbiglia begins by asking the aud to turn off phones and then digresses to talk to three hypothetical people, pondering the extent of the second amendment, and wondering where he can get a cell phone with a cupholder.
That amusing rabbit trail is the first thing to suggest why Birbiglia has attracted folks like producers Nathan Lane and Eli Gonda. Birbiglia knows how to have fun with dramatic structure, and, like James Braly’s “Life in a Marital Institution” earlier this year, his show isn’t just stand-up and it isn’t just war stories about suffering. Instead, it’s a careful mixture of the two, heavy on the stand-up, designed to knit his little stories into one big one.
The comic, who contributes to Ira Glass’ “This American Life” and has three Comedy Central specials to his name, probably describes his sleepwalking problem best: “Your conscious mind is like, ‘We’re gonna rest for a few hours,’ and your body’s like ‘We’re going skiing!'” It’s probably not a bad disorder for a comedian to have — Birbiglia’s encounters with “a hovering, insect-like jackal,” among other dream monsters, make for great material, and the situations he ends up in (“You heard that guy screaming? That was me!”) are better than many a comic’s fictional scenarios.
Birbiglia stays on the light side even when his stories become painful and unhappy. And that, really, is the key to the act.
Birbiglia’s delivery is terrific — his not-that-bright everyman routine should strike a chord with anyone who’s ever tripped for no reason or gotten someone’s gender wrong. But his writing is deceptively clever, keeping salient points at the forefront as the show moves forward. This technique doesn’t always work to Birbiglia’s advantage: “Sleepwalk With Me” ends too abruptly, and some of the jokes are less interesting than the story at its center. But with so much to recommend the show, these reservations feel stingy.
It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving without a goofy, Mike-like grin, and Birbiglia’s ambitious writing seems destined to pay greater dividends in future work.