“The more people know about you, the more they can use against you.” – Mike Birbiglia’s dad.
When he released his third stand-up comedy album, My Secret Public Journal Live in September of last year, any doubt as to whether Mike Birbiglia was on his way to becoming one of the most important players in stand-up comedy was scrapped. He proved himself not only to be a reliable jokesmith but also an expert storyteller. Clearly, Birbiglia was on track to surpassing his station as a young, up-and-coming comic.
Those that closely followed the New York City-based comic knew that this new story-centric comedy was not just a one-time experiment for Birbigs; this was the type of performer he was maturing into. And he had been working on something even bigger — and even more personal than the series of stories heard on Journal. That something is Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia’s one-man show, in previews since Oct. 17 at the Bleecker Street Theatre. It officially opens on Nov. 11.
It’s reasonable to ask, then, what makes this newest version of Birbiglia, a stand-up comic, worthy of a one-man-show-actor designation. It’s not like he takes to the stage in costume, or he had to nail down a tremendous amount of blocking or even, presumably, take much stage direction. In fact, the Off-Broadway theater presents Birbiglia pretty much the same way you’d see him at a comedy club; the biggest physical differences: the use of a lapel mic and a stage covered in shiny blue Plexiglas.
But one of the elements that makes this a one-man show – and not just another stand-up comedy performance – is the material’s through line. Sleepwalk is, on the surface, the story of Birbiglia’s sleepwalking disorder. Every mini story within the greater story nods back to that. Subplot and deeper meaning are other things Sleepwalk has that a traditional stand-up comedy show doesn’t. While the show entertains enough on the merits of Birbiglia’s brilliant sense of humor, it also resonates with anyone willing to dive a bit deeper and admit their own psychological shortcomings.
“When I was 19, I had a malignant tumor in my bladder… but it’s funny,” Birbiglia says near the start of the show. A lifelong hypochondriac, that event – it took a week before he knew it was malignant – was the birth of his sleepwalking disorder, which, among other things, found him defending himself and his girlfriend from a “jackal” in his bedroom, falling off a dresser and, most dangerously, jumping through a closed second-story window of a hotel in Walla Walla, Wash., which left him bleeding in is underwear and driving himself to the emergency room.
But all the physical missteps Birbiglia humorously tells us about are really just illustrative reminders of what Sleepwalk is really about— a young man’s recursive, anxiety-soaked journey to proper adulthood. At every critical point in Birbiglia’s life – like moving in with his longtime girlfriend, embarking on life on the road as a comedian – his sleepwalking gets worse and more life-threatening. Yet nothing can convince him to confront this medical condition by seeing a doctor — or similarly confront the philosophical dilemmas in his life. By Sleepwalk’s end, it’s clear that Birbiglia has a few miles left before he completes his journey to traditional adulthood. But really, no true stand-up comedy fan wants that for Birbiglia anyway.
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