If you’re wondering why your favorite New York City swimming pool has suddenly become even more crowded than usual, Mike Birbiglia’s new show, The Old Man & The Pool, now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, may be the reason. The one-man show takes a deep dive into the benefits of swimming for a longer life. That makes it sound like a health guru’s pitch, but Birbiglia is a reluctant convert to cardio exercise. His journey to the acceptance of regular workouts is at the heart of his highly entertaining and moving monologue.
Against a curved turquoise backdrop that alternates between the bottom of a pool and a hospital room and even becomes a slide, Birbiglia tells his rambling tale. The aquatic set–by Beowulf Boritt–ripples gently and subtly changes color to signify a putrid pool of Birbiglia’s youth or a deeper blue when he makes his peace with swimming. Birbiglia’s health issues have featured in some of his previous shows and on the surface a show about finding out you have a heart condition and are pre-diabetic doesn’t sound much fun. But with “laugh till you cry” extended gags and a fair dose of gallows humor, Birbiglia makes some of the worst moments in his life extremely funny.
Near the opening of the show, Birbiglia gets his dire prognosis and reveals that at least two family members have died young of heart attacks. But this is not his first confrontation with a life-threatening disease. At nineteen, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. This experience seems to have imbued him with a mordant humor. Much of his delivery is conversational, with the stand-up comic’s typical tangents – including a long exposition of the story behind the title of the show. Suffice to say, at the aforementioned putrid pool – the YMCA in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Birbiglia grew up, he encountered an old man who swam every day. Years later, the memory of this man will inspire him to take seriously his doctor’s advice that he needs to swim at least five days a week. The only hitch is that he’s a terrible swimmer.
A show focused on medical problems seems apt for our times as we emerge from a pandemic that gave many people an up close and personal view of how fragile our health can be. Birbiglia talks intimately about what it feels like to suddenly wonder “how many birthday cakes” you have left. But the show steers clear of becoming maudlin. In fact, Birbiglia bounces around the stage, nimbly jumping up from prone positions and imitating what he describes as his “blender” style of swimming.
As is typical of stand-up, tropes successfully return several times during the piece. However, the decision to have some phrases appear written on the backdrop that he describes writing in his journal serves to state the obvious rather than add to the effect. But even as he shares some of his most intimate health moments in excruciating detail, his low-key delivery and repeated ribbing of audience members who arrived late keep the tone light. Despite the epidemic levels of diabetes in America and our dysfunctional health insurance system, Birbiglia never mentions the bigger picture. Nevertheless, these issues are ever present as he describes how his lifestyle has not made eating healthily easy. “Healthy food goes to bed early,” he quips. “Pizza stays up all night.”
The show builds to a climactic story that Birbiglia threatens not to tell if the audience can’t control their laughter. It’s a tour de force, as he himself must maintain a straight face to keep the audience wondering if he is really trying to tamp down their mirth. I came out feeling that if if regular swimming can give you the energy and verve Birbiglia brings to his show, it’s time for all of us to head to the pool.