Review: As the ‘Old Man,’ Mike Birbiglia confronts middle age, mortality with irresistible humor, insight

In a galvanic, endearing and very funny meditation on mortality, New York-based stand-up, storyteller and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia, a mere 43 years old, gamely assumes the role of the titular older man for “The Old Man and the Pool. ”

But his narrative, one-person show does feature one significantly older man who similarly establishes himself as a staple of the YMCA pool experience. When Birbiglia was a child at the Y, he encountered his first old man at the pool, and marvels as the man confidently airs his naughty lower bits in the locker room, projecting an aggressive level of comfort and ease with the present moment.

“The Old Man and the Pool,” playing through May 22 at Steppenwolf Theater’s Downstairs Theater, serves as the story of how Birbiglia continually faces the very real prospect of death with his own version of calm: by joking about it. His willingness to allow his insecurities and awkwardness to stand in as the butt of these jokes is what elevates the show to a higher form of gallows humor.

Mike Birbiglia — ‘The Old Man and the Pool’

Birbiglia’s past work treads some of the same ground and features cinematic levels of action. In “Sleepwalk With Me,” a show (and, later, film) detailing a life afflicted with a dangerous sleep disorder, Birbiglia leaps through the second story window—double-paned glass—of a motel and continues to run while shards of glass slice his sleeping skin. “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” in which Birbiglia wrestles with his apprehension towards marriage, kicks off with a nearly fatal car crash.

“The Old Man and the Pool” plays out more like a medical drama, finding Birbiglia bouncing from doctor’s examination room to doctor’s examination room—in one case later in the same day. Faced with a double diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, Birbiglia must contend with a fear of death that is rapidly consuming his every waking moment.

The pool at the Brooklyn YMCA represents a monkey’s paw-type solution: It won’t solve his problems, but it offers Birbiglia the chance to improve his health and delay the inevitable if only he can surmount his childhood fear of, and vow never to return to, the YMCA pool.

“Old Man” marks an evolution point for Birbiglia’s comedic style. Even in his earliest material (“Two Drink Mike,” “My Secret Public Journal Live”), Birbiglia proves himself a master wordsmith capable of turning phrases that have otherwise all but etched themselves in stone as immobile. In “Old Man,” Birbiglia says that he hates seeking second opinions because, “I thought the first one was fact-based” and his body is not a swimmer’s body, more of a “drowner’s body.”

He also boasts a gift for concocting compelling visuals, explaining how even in a mammoth swimming pool there exists 20 gallons of urine—which, percentage-wise, isn’t a lot, but when you consider it as one large unit, is deeply disturbing . In other cases, he leaves little to the imagination and literally acts out his pathetic swimming strokes with the commitment of an Olympic-caliber athlete.

Birbiglia’s joke delivery is codifying into one that leans into his spastic thought process, mixing wit with pangs of personal pain and some ironic distance. It’s easy to detect traces of another well-known comic—Jim Gaffigan—who pairs jokes with self-deprecating lines delivered by his inner monologue. In “Old Man,” Birbiglia mumbles to himself (into a microphone, of course) after his jokes, whether it’s to lament a phrase not hitting with the audience, throw in a few more funny lines or simply take a moment to giggle at the absurdity of the situation he is describing. This device adds a level of endearment because the audience can experience these harrowing life moments alongside Birbiglia—who uses humor as a coping mechanism.

Birbiglia does demonstrate a propensity for tangents; they occur relentlessly and, at first, can feel distracting. But the rhythm by which he speaks quickly becomes hypnotic, and these asides afford opportunities for Birbiglia to lean into goofier material, like when he quickly composes, and sings, a jingle for the fictional “sugar fries.”

“The Old Man and the Pool” introduces some existential questions hinted at by Birbiglia’s earlier work: If the concept of death exists as a specter by our side, how much influence should it wield over our decisions? Should we live life for ourselves or for our progeny? The show leaves a few of these threads unpulled, particularly one regarding how his parents express affection, but “Old Man” deftly uses comedy as a deep dive into death, demonstrating that when you stop thrashing around and exist in the moment, you float.

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