Mike Birbiglia likes lists. Early in his irresistible one-man comedy The New One, he cites seven reasons why he never wanted a child.
“Number 1: I’ve never felt like there should be more of me in the world.” That leads to a roundup of his horrific medical history, which includes a life-threatening sleep disorder, which he depicted in an earlier show, book and indie movie called Sleepwalk with Me.
“Just because you make a movie about something does not mean it’s cured,” he says. “It’s like seeing Hotel Rwanda and being like, ‘And then it all worked out!'”
The New One works out — ingeniously. Written by Birbiglia and directed by his longtime collaborator Seth Barrish, it’s funny, layered, never mawkish and replete with meticulously integrated Seinfeld-esque detours. After his asides about the differences between a couch and a bed, you may never look at your furniture the same way again.
Beowulf Boritt’s (initially) spare set includes a wooden stool, which does a credible impression of a couch, thanks to the nimble performer.
Birbiglia, who affects a slacker persona, does capitulate when it comes to procreating. He eventually finds himself in a maternity ward, watching his wife, the poet Jennifer Hope Stein, give birth to their daughter, Oona.
“Two colossal events occur simultaneously.” A human being enters the earth, he says, as his beloved wife becomes a mother before his eyes. “And I…pretty much stay the same.”
In the show’s off-Broadway premiere last summer, Birbiglia took flak for describing himself as more intern than full-fledged partner in his daughter’s early care, and for his spotty record at doing the dishes. Moreover, after he returned from the road with a flu and his normally soft-spoken wife snaps at him, he proclaims in the show, “I think I get why dads leave.”
Critic Alexis Soloski wrote in the Times: “These riffs are built around an old-school, kneejerk, whole-body-jerk assumption that biological mothers are built to nurture and that dads (Mr. Birbiglia doesn’t discuss other family structures) are somehow surplus to requirements.”
I get why women were offended. And why they roll their eyes at men who want medals for doing the dishes. Although we’re in the era of #TimesUp, I’d argue, meekly, that when it comes to household roles, some men are still finding their way.
Birbiglia is hardly an apologist. One of his initial reasons for not wanting a child: “People aren’t great. (You guys seem fine.)”
“I think women are okay,” he elaborates. “I think men…are on thin ice.”
Regardless of whether ‘decent’ is truly the ceiling for most guys, within the confines of writing and performing, Mike Birbiglia is pretty great.
At the Cort Theatre through Jan. 30. Our review of the production off-Broadway is here.