When is a standup routine not a standup routine, but a legitimate play? Partly when it comes with theatrical trappings like a thoughtful set, subtle lighting and sound effects. (Give a pass to the everyday button-down shirt and khakis.) But mostly it goes legit when it puts a singular character through an arc of experience, leaving him and us different at the end than when the story began. On those terms, Mike Birbiglia’s “The New One,” transferred from a sold-out downtown engagement to a limited Broadway one, qualifies as a real play — a brimmingly warm, entertaining one on a universally relatable topic. Birbiglia goes through a life-changing journey; there are surprises and one coup de theatre along the way; and he is most certainly a singular character.
Casual to the max, the affable, shaggy-haired Birbiglia opens with a disquisition on the couches in his life: the one off the street shared with post-college roommates, and the First Big Purchase of adulthood. He wins audience hearts and laughter as we await the transition to Topic A: This pushing-40 married guy, having determined he absolutely should not father a child, will do so, and we’re going to hear about the fallout.
Birbiglia comes off as a Dagwood Bumstead for our time: a hard-working, likable lunkhead, bemused by the demands placed on him by family and life, periodically resistant but eventually committed to doing the right things. Like Blondie’s spouse, he’s a man of large appetites (he immediately orders a pizza to mask a misbehaving cat’s odor), and the possible loss of those appetites is a major objection to embarking on fatherhood. “I’ve lost a lot of great friends to kids,” he confides, never quite buying the reassuring mantra, “This won’t change our lives together.”
Another big obstacle—#1 on a list of seven—is the dicey genetic gifts he would bequeath. We learn more about the life-threatening sleep disorder Birbiglia revealed on stage, on film and in print in “Sleepwalk With Me,” and the doctors throw in Lyme disease and Type II diabetes for good measure. Here’s where the ever-present comedy club vibe comes in handy, warding off self-pity or any sense of Too Much Information as he maintains an easy, friendly manner with the spectators, briefly segueing into (seemingly, but who knows?) unscripted riffs on random topics.
Birbiglia even handles Broadway’s variation on hecklers, the cellular interrupters, with aplomb some of our phone-seizing divas might emulate. Hearing a muffled string of news reports at the performance caught, he wondered with alarm whether there’d been some “catastrophe” in the outside world: “Could the ushers keep me posted?….’Cuz we could do this later….?”
But then it’s back to the personal with the introduction of a new member of the household, and things get pretty fraught as he realizes mother and child together now outvote him, and their apartment’s “we” may not even include him anymore. The second half bursts with psychological stresses and unanticipated adjustments to radically new circumstances, as well as musings likely to make audiences distinctly uncomfortable. Kudos, then, to director Seth Barrish for keeping the tone from shifting into either the maudlin, the too-dark or the trippy, New-Age blissful. Credit set designer Beowulf Boritt for interjecting magic while keeping us unambiguously in a theater, lighting designer Aaron Copp for infusing it with mystery, and sound designer Leon Rothenberg for deft interjections of city ambience.
With material this personal, it’s hard not to wonder what it must be like for standups to make their way through life knowing that every moment is potential fodder for material. How do they react and cope in the now, while storing up future impressions and maintaining aesthetic distance? This Pirandellian balancing act, known to all creative types but especially tricky for the comic, might well be the subject of another incisive play. Take it away, Mike.