The Hilarious, Life-Affirming ‘The Old Man and the Pool’ Turned Me into a Mike Birbiglia Fan
When comic Mike Birbiglia took to the almost bare stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre I noticed that besides a dark stool, a staple for stand-up comics, there wasn’t much else to see (a stark contrast from the filled-to-the-brim lavish set of The Skin of Our Teeth last time I was here). I wasn’t expecting The Old Man and the Pool, my first-ever stand-up comedy special, to be a one-man play received with laughter, knowing nods, sighs, and tears (some, not all, of them from laughing too hard.)
In this 85-minute heartfelt and humorous account, Birbiglia shares his take on mortality, through tales of his childhood, past and current medical conditions, and the chlorine-filled swimming pool at the Brooklyn YMCA, where we later learn someone died. Don’t worry, no more spoilers.
On the curved backdrop, made to look like the bottom of a swimming pool, with tile grids in artificial blue and all (designed by Beowulf Boritt), we see the show’s title, in Birbiglia’s own handwriting, projected along with subtle water ripples. At some point, using effective lighting (by Aaron Copp) this background also turns into a hospital examination table. For the most part, though, it stands there just to remind us of the show’s themes.
Birbiglia didn’t need props and elaborate sets as he engaged the massive room with ease. He pretended to wrestle, amongst other things, decked in his typical Brooklyn hipster dad uniform of a button-down shirt (understated but still fun), slacks, and bright red socks peeking out of grey Allbirds (the costume is by Toni-Leslie James). Really, everything about him read as signs that this would be simply another masturbatory celebration of wit through self-deprecating jokes.
Having seen exactly zero of Birbiglia’s specials prior, I arrived at the show with a healthy dose of reluctance, hoping to be convinced that this comedian deserved a Broadway house to do a stand-up routine. I was pleasantly surprised and walked out of the theatre as a new fan. Honestly, I was thoroughly enraptured by every word of a performance (sleek direction by Seth Barrish,) that flew by, and became the most fun I’ve had at a show in years, if not ever.
In short, it was breathtaking. As in, I laughed so hard it got a bit hard to breathe. But also, it touched something tender in the depth of my heart. Anyone who’s experienced loss, and learned to laugh in the face of sorrow, would understand the power of humor when confronted with the most insurmountable challenges in life.
Beyond the entertainment value of slinging a chock full of well-timed and cleverly plotted-out jokes, The Old Man and the Pool digs a lot deeper into universal subject matters. Through a combination of observational humor and candid storytelling, Birbiglia presents himself to be the “everyman,” a lovable “loser” who could be anyone’s neighbor. A man who veers on the side of “awkward” in everything.
And yet, he flexes the muscle of being an experienced performer who’s mastered the art of conjuring and manipulating emotions. The room breathes at his will. You can feel the emotions shift exactly as he planned. Suddenly, the stand-up routine turns into a play in which the real person on stage – sharing anecdotes from his life – becomes the character who experiences changes.
All the while, you learn something new as he discovers it within himself as well. In that way, Birbiglia examines his own pathos with this piece, which ends up being not only a joyous night out at the theatre (for his existing fans or newbies, like me, alike) but also an emotional journey that would make anyone who’s considered their own mortality pause to think and end up feeling uplifted and strengthened by laughter. A reminder that our time here isn’t long, so we might as well, Birbiglia will tell you, “enjoy every sandwich”.
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