Mike Birbiglia’s the New One at the Ahmanson

A Theatre Review by Keri Tombazian

October 29, 2019
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Even before the house lights dimmed to dark and the stage lights popped on like a curtain rising to reveal Mike Birbiglia bouncing with enthusiasm, a pre-show soundtrack blared out a beat that hinted at the life force that was to come. The opening night audience of the New One was primed to laugh.  And laugh we did, at every turn.  Birbiglia’s self-description: “a cross between Matt Damon and Bill O'Reilly,” is spot on.  He is both attractive and a little frumpy.  That is the one line of dialogue that will be referenced in this review. No spoilers here; for each and every word spoken by this one-man wonder is best heard tumbling out of his mouth in his own voice.  Perhaps Birbiglia has many unseen marketable skills, but it is unfathomable that any would trump his preternatural skill of telling stories, whether making movies, acting in scripted television or his best, telling them live. He seems born to this art form, as if, like an untethered helium balloon which has no choice but to fly, Mike Birbiglia follows an unavoidable trajectory propelled by an unseen force. 

He is an accomplished filmmaker (Sleepwalk with Me, Don’t Think Twice,) actor (Orange is the New Black, Billions, Inside Amy Schumer,) and comic (Kurt Vonnegut Humor Award recipient.)  Bringing this storehouse of experience and talent elevates the New One above a comedy set.  Mere comedy might wane over ninety minutes in the large house and storied stage of the Ahmanson.  The New One soars–an entire play created from the whole cloth of Birbiglia’s voice, the unseen characters of his wife, child, and physician, and the audience members’ imagination. Under the keen eye of director Seth Barrish (whose touch is so light it is nearly invisible) Aaron Copp’s dynamic lighting design and Beowolf Boritt’s delightful surprise of scenery bring it all together.

These are stories from the gut.  From having never wanting children, to man-handling huge roadblocks on his reluctant journey, to ultimately becoming a father, Birbiglia recounts every painful, funny, unsavory detail with exquisite timing.  For those with children, the New One is a motherlode of funny. But one need not be a parent to laugh long and hard, seeing the world through Mike’s eyes.  With themes of fear, loathing, self-doubt, and surrender the New One is relatable to all.

Here is a man with Rapid Eye Sleeping Disorder.  Sounds simple enough, but in fact, it is a rare disease that is both dangerous in the immediate as well as a harbinger of possible future diseases; and that is just page-one of his medical file.  The subject of his 2012 film, Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia weaves these tremorous facts into his current narrative with hilarious effect; and in the moment, laughter ensues.  Zoom out and reflect – here is a lesson in making art out of trial, in his case, turning medical misfortune into an award-winning film, and then peppering its features over his live show.

What a wonder.  The New One will be coming to Netflix and that’ll be fine for Mike Birbiglia, but don’t you miss the singular experience of catching it live at the Ahmanson Theatre. Now through November 24th, 2019.  Get your tickets here.