Birbiglia Rides Again



Mike Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
Barrow Street Theatre
Through Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mike Birbiglia has returned to the Off-Broadway stage, once again not only shedding the mantle of stand-up comedy in exchange for the theatrical, but accomplishing the rare feat of creating a one-man show truly worth seeing. Following the basic format he initiated with Sleepwalk with Me, Mike Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is a different chapter from Birbiglia’s unlikely life told with the same distinctive voice that somehow makes awkward seem cool.

Birbiglia is making a place for himself in the rich tradition of American storytellers, weaving narratives for this generation through the practice of one of world’s most ancient art forms.

As before, this play is not about bragging rights, but rather exposing things about himself that are less than flattering, moving from the medical idiosyncrasies of his previous production to the dating inefficiencies and tragedies of his youth. Looking back in laughter, he manages to transform those miserable moments of failure and self-loathing that everyone can relate to into jokes, healing through the catharsis of humor.

Birbiglia’s timing is impeccable, prone to linger with uncomfortable pauses often punctuated with his trademark "I know," acknowledging to the audience that he’s aware that the scene he is painting is going in an unfavorable direction: "I’m in the future also." As in Sleepwalk with Me, Birbiglia proves that he is not afraid to break the fourth wall when something worth commenting on presents itself, and his physical work has made an evolutionary jump in this production. Particularly notable is his portrayal of an ill-fated ride on "The Scrambler" while on a first date. This production is even slightly more theatrical than his Off-Broadway début, and Birbiglia appears to be an artist in transition as he fuses the world of stand-up with that of story-telling, forming a style that encompasses his full capacity.

Helping Birbiglia make this transition are the design team of Beowulf Boritt (Set Design) and Aaron Copp (Lighting Design). Boritt reduces his design down to a black slate that covers the stage and house of the theatre, overlaid with enlarged, notebook scrawlings in white, touching on key points of Birbiglia’s script. The resulting effect is that of being inside of Birbiglia’s mind as he tries to make sense of all the external stimuli penetrating his world. Copp’s design effortlessly interlocks with Boritt’s, particularly in a pre-show sequence which highlights various wall notes with gradually progressing speed, building to a thematically fitting collision just before Birbiglia enters the stage.

There are some comparisons to be made with the one-man works of Wallace Shawn and the late Spalding Gray, the basic commonality being the successful use of simple, stripped-down narrative, but aside from that the styles make drastic divergences and the direction Birbiglia is going in is a welcomed exploration and a path I hope he continues on.