Review: With The Old Man and the Pool, Mike Birbiglia Returns to a Winning Formula of Heart and Humor

Over the last 15 years or so, chances are you’ve come across comedian, author, filmmaker, podcaster and storyteller Mike Birbiglia. It could be you’ve been a fan of his (like me) since Sleepwalk with Me, the story about his issues with sleeping through the night that first put him on the map (if you’re not familiar, look it up—it’s a delightful doozie). Or it could be he’s one of those actors you’ve noticed but could never quite name; since 2011, he’s had roles in Your Sister’s Sister, The Fault in our Stars, Trainwreck and others, plus recurring roles in “Orange is the New Black” and “Billions.” But where he’s truly at home is on a stage on his own, just a stool to occasionally (and strategically) recline on and the wide expanse of space around him to fill by spinning his latest yarn like a modern-day Mark Twain, with lessons to impart by way of relatable, entertaining and surprisingly poignant anecdotes.

It’s Chicago’s great luck that Birbiglia brings his latest one-man show to our very own Steppenwolf Theatre for just a few weeks this spring; though it’s built around a backbone of humor, it can’t quite be described as strictly stand-up. The Old Man and the Pool is everything we’ve come to love from Birbiglia, a wonderful and winding narrative based in his own life that is equally engaging and contemplative, told with quiet confidence and a knack for timing, pacing and the importance of threading the theme through from start to finish. Birbiglia begins the show with a simple acknowledgment: that his last show was 2017’s The New One (it’s streaming on Netflix) and he planned to pick up right where that one left off. Mercifully, The Old Man and the Pool doesn’t have anything to do with the trauma of the last two years (though the comedian has been processing it all through his podcast, “Working on It,” launched in May 2020).

Instead, like his other one-man shows (2011’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, 2015’s Thank God for Jokes and 2017’s The New One), The Old Man and the Pool covers quite a lot of ground while maintaining universal themes. Where earlier productions explored first love (and loss), his chosen profession (and the inherent absurdity in it) or his journey into a committed relationship and parenthood, this set addresses the inevitability of aging and the attention that must be paid to our health and to those who mean the most to us. It’s a routine medical check-up that is our entry way into this latest phase of Birbiglia’s life, as his doctor’s concern about his less-than-impressive heart health triggers a memory about his own father’s heart attack and his father’s father, too. It all culminates in a revelation about his own fatherhood that will give you goosebumps, a credit to the performer’s talent for shaping a narrative. And this is how The Old Man and the Pool pleasantly progresses, laugh-out-loud moments of observational comedy that get the entire crowd going alongside bittersweet yet heartfelt moments of pensive reflection.

The thrust of the show, the pool of the title, has to do with Birbiglia’s ongoing middle-aged health ailments and his doctor’s efforts to get him to be more active. Perhaps he’d take to swimming? So off Birbiglia goes to his local YMCA, resulting in a whole set of hysterical observations about the signs on display at the YMCA pool, the role of chlorine in public swimming spaces and something about a gangster being able to hide their murderous crimes in so much disinfectant. Trust me, it all tracks and it’s all hilarious. Birbiglia recounts vignettes and memories from his childhood as easily as he does more recent ones, bringing us closer to understanding his life experience through multiple access points. His exploration of his parents’ approach to affection might sound as though it’s a far cry from the central theme of aging and coming to terms with the passage of time, but Birbiglia masterfully connects all the dots he places like mile markers along the 80-minute journey he takes us on.

And if Birbiglia has a signature style, it is that: his deft ability to hone a story to its most essential, impactful moments, imbuing his humor with heart. Or is it his heart with humor? Either way, it remains a winning combination and The Old Man and the Pool confirms it.

The Old Man and the Pool runs through May 22 at Steppenwolf Theatre with performances Thursday-Sunday; tickets are available online.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Lisa Trifone

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