Mike Birbiglia is what I call a straddler. Part stand-up, part storyteller. The Brooklyn-based monologist specialises in autobiographical pieces, putting his whimsical imprint on this distinctive hybrid. And he doesn’t shy away from big topics. His latest show, The Old Man & The Pool, tackles mortality and certainly makes a splash.
It begins with a breathing test that does not bode well. The doctor worries that Birbiglia is having a heart attack and packs him off to a cardiologist. After more examinations he is urged to change his lifestyle and exercise more.
The Old Man... is the tale of how Birbiglia turned his life around. It is also about telling the people you care about that you love them and making connections, as well as being about seeing an elderly gentleman butt naked in the swimming pool changing room.
Birbiglia interlaces past and present so deftly it appears effortless. He recalls swimming as a boy in Massachusetts and being horrified by the stench of chlorine. Strong enough, he jokes, to dispose of a corpse in the water.
He starts swimming again, even though he is not cut out for it. He doesn’t have a swimmer’s body, more of a “drowner’s body”. But he does have motivation. His father and grandfather both had heart attacks at 56. He is in his mid-40s with a young daughter.
Birbiglia fans will spot references from past sets, most notably that he sleeps in a sleeping bag to prevent habitual sleepwalking – he once jumped out of a second floor window. He worries that if his heart doesn’t kill him nocturnal wandering might get there first.
There are other health problems too. Diabetes pitches up to add insult to injury and he has to cut back on his beloved pizza. He has a persuasive way of describing his cravings – healthy food goes to bed early, pizza stays up late – noting that particularly when written in capitals the lettering even look like pizza slices.
This might sound morbid, but Birbiglia has a sublime lightness of touch, gliding seamlessly from anecdote to anecdote, subtle physicality adding extra comedy. He performs against a blue backdrop which occasionally alters to illustrate the narrative, lapping waves or cliff-drop graph that confirms exactly how bad his breathing was.
At times the show, directed by Seth Barrish, feels a little overscripted, but towards the end it loosens up as Birbiglia engages with the audience. Playful crowdwork ensures that everyone is onside as the narrative builds to an exquisite finish. Dive into this virtuoso performance and enjoy.
Wyndham’s Theatre to October 7, book here