In “The New One,” which has transferred to Broadway after a sold-out run off-Broadway this past summer writer and comedian Mike Birbiglia improbably begins the evening by explaining that he has an unusually intimate relationship with furniture — his sofa “hugs” him. But after spending 80 minutes with Mike at the Cort Theatre, I no longer found it surprising that even an inanimate object offered affection. With a comedy style reminiscent of Steven Wright (though less cerebral), amiably nerdy Birbiglia finds surreal hilarity in the mundane and wins us over with humor that is neither malicious nor diminishing, along with insights that are moving but not mawkish.
Introduced to New York theater 10 years ago with the solo show, “Sleepwalk with Me,” about his sleeping disorder, a continuing condition well-mined for jokes in the current show, Birbiglia in performance is challenging to categorize. He is more than a comedian; his brand of autobiographical storytelling leaves the audience wondering where the line is drawn between fact and fiction. Especially since, like all great storytellers, Birbiglia certainly knows how to exaggerate for comic effect. (Ira Glass of NPR’s “This American Life” is one of the producers and it is easy to see the idiomatic cross over between that show and this one.)
The basic set up in “The New One” is that happily married, constantly touring Birbiglia does not wish to become a father. (This show alone has played more than 40 cities, including some places Birbiglia says are best characterized as “an Applebee’s with a dream.”) In his mind, there are many good reasons for him to feel this way — seven reasons, in fact, which he self-deprecatingly goes on to outline in sometimes graphic but mirthful detail.
Landing safely on the aforementioned couch becomes a metaphor for the solace of Birbiglia’s home, and the undisturbed sanctity of marriage to his poet wife and writing collaborator, Jennifer Hope Stein. (Stein is credited with providing additional material and her evocative poems are featured at key interludes.)
Unfortunately for Birbiglia, his wife begins to view the possibility of procreation differently, and a complex negotiation begins. While the script has a folksy feel and is written in vernacular language, it is in fact impeccably structured.
And though less loose and improvisatory than most stand-up, in the performance I attended, Birbiglia still found a way to break the fourth wall and interact with the audience. If you arrive late to the show and have a good seat, prepare yourself to be gently scolded, in the form of a brief reprise of all you have missed. And text at your peril. “We can see each other, you know,” Birbiglia said to an offending patron. “We’re really both here.” He makes a good point. The immediacy of unfiltered moment-to-moment artist-audience connection matters, but it’s precarious, as Birbiglia’s expression briefly revealed an intriguing hint of danger before reverting back to his endearing lopsided grin.
The material lands so acutely because Birbiglia is pungently nailing some pressing contemporary preoccupations that are rarely talked about on stage or elsewhere. As social pressure to have children lessens, educated folks in their thirties are unfavorably contrasting the anticipated demands of child rearing with the satisfactions of their relationships with their partners and the comforts of their established lives. (This demographic was very well represented in the audience at the performance I attended.) They are suspicious that the hyped transcendence of parenting is simply a false promise. For example, men can and do feel left out of the romance when mothers fall in love with their babies. “It is a shocking revelation when you are evicted from your own life sponsored by you,” Birbiglia says.
Birbiglia goes on to theorize that motherhood has too long held back women — in his view a superior gender — from contributing to a better world. Men are, at best, “decent,” which to him is a euphemism for “barely acceptable.” This too is a currently popular trope; especially when it comes from a youngish Richard Thomas look alike who has gone to great lengths to assure us that he belongs in the “decent” category. Besides which, the world is facing a climate disaster and is filled with hateful people, so why bring children into it? (Of course, I couldn’t help thinking that only the self-aware humans worry about polluting the gene pool, and those are the exact people we need more of in the world.)
Director Seth Barrish expertly assists Birbiglia in finding a way back from the more offensive places the narrative could take him and ensures, along with the sensitive work of set designer Beowulf Boritt and Aaron Copp’s atmospheric lighting, that a succession of beautifully realized transitions remind us that we are in a theater and not a comedy club.
At one point, in a gorgeous instance of authentic shared connection, Bibirglia says “That was a moment. There are moments where you feel like your souls are colliding in a way no two souls have in the history of humankind. And you think, ‘how did I get this lucky?’” And that is exactly the feeling Birbiglia gives us at “The New One.”
“The New One” opened on Sun., Nov 11, 2018 at the Cort Theatre.
Creative: Written by Mike Birbiglia; Additional writing by Jennifer Hope Stein; Directed by Seth Barrish; Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Lighting Design by Aaron Copp; Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg.
Producers: Kevin McCollum, Iris Smith, Triptyk Studios, Chris & Crystal Sacca, Sing Out, Louise! Productions, Jam Theatricals, Ashley De Simone and Lucas McMahon.
Cast: Mike Birbiglia.