In his latest one-man show, The New One, Mike Birbiglia shares intimate information about his relationship with a piece of furniture. “I love my couch,” he says. “It’s the first big thing I dropped money on in my life.” I love my couch also. It was one of the first “adult” pieces of furniture I shopped for and purchased with my wife. We got it at Bloomingdale’s, and I remember being heartbroken when it turned out that the delivery people couldn’t fit the couch into the elevator in our building (even though they claimed they were sure it would fit when we bought it). They had to take this majestic item apart, then put it back together once inside our apartment. That couch has been with us a long time, through several colonizing cats, but now we might have to get rid of it because it’s too soft and comfortable for my back. Why am I telling you all this? Well, the couch, which Birbiglia calls “a bed that hugs you,” plays an integral role, along with a cat, in the show, which continues at the Cherry Lane through August 26. Like at such previous Birbiglia confessionals as Sleepwalk with Me and Thank God for Jokes, audiences leave the theater feeling the need to share aspects of their own life while still brushing away the tears brought on by Birbiglia’s tales, both from laughing at his perceptive musings on human nature and crying at his deeply personal revelations. He doesn’t hold anything back, getting as graphic as, um, let’s just say he gets pretty graphic. It’s a unique kind of cathartic experience that helps explain why his shows sell out so quickly.
In The New One, the Massachusetts-born Birbiglia, who recently turned forty and, as he states, looks like a cross between Matt Damon and Bill O’Reilly, talks about how, after ten years of marriage, his wife, Jen — whom he regularly refers to as Chlo — suddenly decided she wanted to have a baby, something they had previously agreed they did not want. So Birbiglia spends most of the show discussing his current and past sex life, explaining how babies destroyed his brother’s once-happy life, and delving deep into his various health problems, several of which are extremely serious and quite frightening, including the dangerous sleepwalking that was the focus of his breakthrough performance. “There are details in my life that are both setups and punchlines,” he says after describing what he has to do to prepare for bed in order to try not to sleepwalk. He also lists reasons why he never wanted to have a kid in the first place, including: “I don’t think there should be children anymore.” At one point he also says, “I’m telling you this long, embarrassing story to make the point that I consider myself ‘decent.’”
Birbiglia, who won a Lucille Lortel Award for My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and wrote, directed, and starred in the 2016 film Don’t Think Twice, certainly comes off as decent in The New One, which is executive produced by Ira Glass (This American Life). Birbiglia freely admits his failings, as well as his successes, making us consider our own as well, like soldiers comparing battle scars. He’s just a regular, soft-spoken guy — his delivery grows stronger as the show goes on — with trials and tribulations that we all can relate to. Not that we’d want to have any of his illnesses, which are pretty horrific. Director Seth Barrish (Pentecost, The Tricky Part) and Tony-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt (Act One, Come from Away), who have both worked with Birbiglia before, keep things simple, save for one cool surprise. And the wooden slats, like window blinds, around the Cherry Lane make it feel as if the audience is within Birbiglia’s psyche, which is a comfortable place to be for seventy-five minutes. Kind of like a bed that hugs you.