I have to preface this review…with two thoughts: 1) Mike Birbiglia told me tonight at his opening-night party that I need to come back and see his show again because he made changes even in the past week. And 2) Sometimes in comedy you may see a performer so many times, that it becomes difficult to process the performance for what it is. That happened with Mike Birbiglia and me earlier this year. We crossed paths so often in the spring and summer, that by the time I saw his rough version of what would become his off-Broadway one-man show in Montreal, old jokes and new jokes and stories all kind of blurred in my head. Thankfully, for both of us, we took some time off from each other, and when I caught a preview of Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me two weeks ago, not only could I see how much work he’d put into his show, but with fresh eyes, I could see how it all fits together now.
Sleepwalk With Me opens its limited engagement tonight at The Bleecker Street Theatre. The stage is set up for dreaming, with a deep blue floor and wall offering reflective views of the comedian as he talks, save for one cracked hole in the wall that looks as though someone had yelled, "Kool-Aid!" Birbiglia emerges through the hole and wisely warms up the audience with an annoucement about cell phones, which in turn, leads into a five-minute bit of his on cell phones and technology. Some of Birbiglia’s critics worry that he tends to reuse material from one CD to another, but this bit makes perfect sense here to get the audience in the proper mood not just for a show, but also for the kind of storytelling that Birbiglia has gotten quite adept at. Another five minutes he spends talking about his mother and father, and their differing opinions on how much of your personal life should become public, and you’re ready to hear about his own need to share uncomfortable stories with strangers. In this case, his own strange but truly uncomfortable life story.
The main 50-minute arc circles around three themes in Birbiglia’s life
— his first love, his sleepwalking and broader health concerns, and
his path toward becoming the comic he is today. Earlier in the year, when I had seen this work in progress, some bits
felt more like jokes thrown into the mix to pad the running time of his
show. Seeing it now, though, the structure shows how the things that
occupy Birbiglia’s time — whether it’s the Internet, TV news, pizza,
relationships — all in some way have contributed to his ongoing sleep
disorder. "The Promise of Sleep,"
a book that he read and has with him onstage, talks about how his own
health and happiness is intrinsically connected to his ability (or
inability, in his case) to get a good night’s sleep. The way Birbiglia, with direction from Seth Barrish, has managed to envelop so much drama into this production is a testament to his strength as both a storyteller and as a comedian. There are moments of pure poignancy amid all of the laughs.
And this all happens before we even reach the climactic 15-minute finale in which Birbiglia describes the sleepwalking incident that could have gotten him killed in Walla Walla, Wash.
In the preview performance I saw, the audience falsely assumed the show was over about five minutes early due to a line Birbiglia uttered with such confidence and finality that they began applauding enthusiastically. And there was a tech issue with the hands-free microphone, but they vowed to fix that.
Whether or not you have seen Birbiglia perform stand-up before, you certainly will see him with new eyes and even more appreciation after seeing him in Sleepwalk With Me. On Thursday nights, a separate crew sets up offstage to film audience members who have their own sleepwalking stories to tell.
Sleepwalk With Me plays Wednesday – Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Sunday
at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets: www.telecharge.com or call (212) 239-6200.
If you’d like to see how Mike Birbiglia gets through the night, or learn more about sleepwalking, then watch this report from Good Day New York: