Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 13, 2022
The Old Man & the Pool by Mike Birbiglia. Directed by Seth Barrish. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Aaron Copp. Sound design by Kai Harada. Projection design by Hana S. Kim.
Let me give it a shot. Mike's the guy you always want to invite to your party. Or maybe he's the one who shows up under the assumption that you accidentally forgot to invite him. He will keep your guests gleefully amused through the night. But he will also continue to hang around after everyone else has packed it in. As long as there's someone left to listen, there's Mike: stand-up comic, improv artist, and raconteur, a man who has never met a tangent he didn't love or an audience he could not connect with.
Certainly that latter was the case at the performance I attended, where Birbiglia was greeted with a widespread outpouring of applause, hoots and hollers, and where he engaged with us all in a way that made the 1,000-plus seat theater seem like an intimate gathering space for friends. He was even happy to stop the show to give a quick recap for those who happened to arrive a little late. And while meandering is Birbiglia's stock in trade, there actually is a story to be told in The Old Man & the Pool, one with a beginning and an ending.
It starts with a visit to the doctor for an annual checkup. Ah, yes, the doctor. If you are at all familiar with Birbiglia's work, possibly from Ira Glass's popular radio show "This American Life" or from the performer's previous Broadway outing The New One from 2018, you'll already know a lot about his medical history. It includes some serious health issues along with a significant amount of fear of what's to come, not exactly unwarranted since, as he tells us, his father and his grandfather both died of heart attacks while in their 50s. Birbiglia is 44, and, for all of the jokes, he is looking ahead with some degree of trepidation. In this case, the discussion with his doctor was about the condition of his heart as well as his overall health, which, unfortunately, included a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.
That diagnosis, along with the advice of a cardiologist, led Birbiglia to take up swimming at the nearby Y. It is his on again, off again experience with swimming that makes up the meat of the show. If none of this sounds terribly funny, think of it as the underscoring, the impulse that drives Birbiglia. What we see onstage happens to be very funny indeed, the stuff between beginning and end that provides us with a masterful free-form approach to comedy that dances nimbly across styles and influences ranging from Don Rickles to George Carlin to Steve Martin to Jerry Seinfeld.
Clever staging by Birbiglia's frequent director Seth Barrish, and Beowulf Boritt's creative set design prevent this solo performance from being static, of the man-on-a-stool variety. Boritt has provided a three-dimensional abstract piece that hangs down and across the stage, looking rather like one giant rectangle of vinyl flooring or Con-Tact paper, that stuff you use to line shelves. On the one hand, it represents the pool at the Y (Hana S. Kim provides appropriate projections in case you miss the point), but it also serves as a play area for Birbiglia, who throws himself all over, across, and down it throughout the performance, like a bouncy teddy bear. Fun for the eye as well as for the ear.
And there you have it, Mike being Mike for just under an hour-and-a-half. It makes for a downright pleasurable evening presided over by an adroit and crowd-pleasing entertainer. These days, that might just be what the doctor ordered.