Staying afloat with laughter in ‘Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool’ at Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theater

What’s so funny about aging, illness, mortality, a highly chlorinated pool at the YMCA, and a naked old man in the locker room? Plenty, if you’re award-winning entertainer Mike Birbiglia. Back on Broadway for a strictly limited engagement at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, his latest show, The Old Man & the Pool (which has already been extended by popular demand), combines stand-up and physical comedy with deeply personal autobiographical storytelling in a hilariously uplifting and affecting rumination on life and death, inspired by his 2017 diagnosis with a serious cardio condition, battles with bladder cancer and diabetes, and a family history of heart attacks at the age of 56. Through it all, he keeps on smiling, joking, and proving that laughter is the best medicine, by dosing the audience with spoonful after spoonful of his delectable elixir. It’s a recipe that’s way better for you than the unhealthy “sugar fries” he imagines.

Mike Birbiglia. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Brilliantly constructed with triggered memories, tangential anecdotes, insightful observations, and extended metaphors that invariably circle back and surprisingly connect to the theme at hand – of his (and Everyman’s) ever deteriorating body and encroaching demise – Birbiglia, now 44, delivers the dark humor with natural ease and fluidity, spot-on timing, and irrepressible zest and charm. He’s even irresistible when mock-scolding members of the audience for arriving twenty minutes after curtain time (the only occasion on which I’ve ever been happy that people showed up late!) and for laughing incessantly through his request for a moment of silence to observe a man’s peculiar death in the eponymous pool.

Under the precise and animated direction of Seth Barrish (the fifth solo show on which he and Birbiglia have collaborated), with Ira Glass serving as story consultant, the master monologist, casually dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a long-sleeve button-down polka-dot shirt (costume design by Toni-Leslie James), doesn’t stop moving around the stage or landing the unexpected punchlines and abrupt sidesplitting ending that sharply truncate any chance of lingering in sentimental moments of distress or concern. Instead, he embraces a sense of joie de vivre, carpe diem, and the advice of the late Warren Zevon to “enjoy every sandwich” (though not too much of the chicken parmesan), in the spirit that he’s “here for a good time, not a long time.”

Mike Birbiglia. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Whether re-enacting uproarious episodes of breathing into a medical test tube (badly), swimming (badly), wrestling (badly), or challenging the advice of his doctors (unsuccessfully and repeatedly), Birbiglia never fails to elicit a laugh-out-loud reaction from his enthusiastic fans (if you weren’t one before, you’re guaranteed to become one now), with his sharp-witted words and consummately executed examination of the inescapable universal reality of the transiency of life. And he does it all with only a stool on a simple curved set by Beowulf Boritt that evokes both a wave and a medical graph about to engulf him, projections by Hana S. Kim that change with the stories and identify the locales, expressive lighting by Aaron Copp that dramatically emphasizes the riotous gut-punch of a conclusion, and his own extraordinary talent for finding relatable humor in darkness.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.

Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & the Pool plays through Sunday, January 15, 2023, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $84-298, plus fees), go online. Masks are optional in the theater and lobby.


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