Mike Birbiglia’s The New One is at The National Theatre in DC for just a few nights so let’s cut to the chase: go see it. Those not wildly familiar with Birbiglia’s work might be confused. Am I going to see a play? A stand-up comedian? A storyteller? Yes, yes you are.
I pre-gamed for The New One by listening to Birbiglia’s podcast, The Old Ones (Mike, if you’re reading this—great marketing!). Since I only had vague awareness of Birbiglia, this really helped me get to know him a bit before seeing The New One. Biggest takeaways: Mike is tight with Ira Glass, he has a sleep disorder that once caused him to run through a second-story window at a LaQuinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington, and Nathan Lane lent his name to his first one-man show which gave Birbiglia some street cred with the theatre crowd. Adequate introduction.
When I get to my seat at The National Theatre on Wednesday the place is abuzz. First thing I notice: this audience skews younger than most of the shows I see in DC (Hurrah for some cross-pollination with the comedy crowd!) Loud music is blasting through the theatre and there is an energy in the air. This audience is ready to hear the most disarmingly regular guy tell a pitch-perfect story.
And he delivers.
Written and performed by Birbiglia and directed by Seth Barrish, The New One begins with a single stool with a microphone headset perched on it. Birbiglia shuffles out in his khakis, sneakers, and button-down shirt. He starts talking to the audience as if it’s a room of 30 (it’s 1600) whilst putting his microphone on. He’s incredibly at ease. He’s here to have a chat, tell a story, make us laugh, maybe cry. And he does. We settle in immediately and begin laughing about a shared experience we’ve all had: a relationship with our couch.
Birbiglia brilliantly uses the connection with the couch to work his way into his story about becoming a father. We can’t all relate to where he ends up, but we all get the couch thing so we’re instantly hooked. Oh yes, this is a story for us. He brings us along on his journey of anxiety, growth, and acceptance of new roles and relationships. And anyone who has experienced parenthood nods and laughs in giddy recognition for the entirety. We all feel unprepared, inadequate, and not quite sure about the whole thing. It’s a big commitment. Birbiglia gets it and articulates it well.
Birbiglia has the superpower of talking about his own life for 80 minutes without coming across minutely narcissistic. He is self-deprecating, accessible, and honest. His timing is perfect. His affinity for physical comedy and a switch joke is excellent. And beyond that, he succeeds at opening a window into the world of someone who never dreamed of being a parent, then becomes one. It’s honest, hilarious, and relatable. The pacing works and the lighting and staging appropriately serve the story.
It’s possible I have a soft spot for Birbiglia’s tale because I’m a new parent myself. In a serendipitous twist, this was the first jaunt out to the theatre that my husband and I experienced together since our little one was born. So I secretly wonder, “do I love this because I am so in the thick of the new parent thing myself?”
Let’s go with yes and no. Of course, it resonates on a deeply personal level for this moment in time. When Birbiglia tosses around a My Breast Friend, Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit, and a giant caterpillar, I am full-on ROFLcoptering. What has my life become? But here’s the thing, Birbiglia is so vulnerable about his own human experience that anyone in the audience can imagine himself or herself in his shoes. We’ve all done hard things, made big choices, and hoped we’re really up to the task set before us. In a moment in the zeitgeist where we are falling prey to the lie that we are more different than alike, Birbiglia rolls in with an uncanny ability to build connection and empathy. Long live humanity, transparency, the absurdity of life as a new parent, and Mike Birbiglia.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes, with no intermission.
Mike Birbiglia’s The New One plays through September 28, 2019, at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets in person at the National Theatre box office, or go online.
Recommended for ages 13 and up.
Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Lighting Design by Aaron Copp; Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg.