Thursday, March 26, 2020

"The New One: Painfully True Stories From a Reluctant Dad" - Mike Birbiglia

"Charmingly neurotic" has often been a phrase used to describe Mike Birbiglia, a stand-up comic turned writer turned actor/filmmaker who's won our hearts and made us laugh with such efforts as "Sleepwalk With Me" and "Don't Think Twice" along with a number of other cinematic appearances where he often plays the neurotic boyfriend, best friend, co-worker, etc. 

Let's face it. Mike Birbiglia is neurotic, though it's a hard-earned neuroses. 

Birbiglia survived cancer at the age of 19 and was diagnosed with rapid eye movement sleep disorder, a disorder so severe that he once sleepwalked out of a second-story Walla Walla, Washington La Quinta Inn window. Based on Birbiglia's award-winning stage show "The New One," for which he won both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding Solo Performance, "The New One: Painfully True Stories From a Reluctant Dad" is the kind of neurotic long-form storytelling for which Birbiglia is known best. It's simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and awkwardly painful, filled with vulnerable truths that many of us feel yet most of us wouldn't ever dare speak. 

Birbiglia speaks it and somehow makes us laugh through it all. "The New One" kicks off with Birbiglia and his wife Jen, whom he regularly refers to as Clo for reasons either never revealed or that I'm simply too blind to catch on to, as they live into the marital vows they promised one another including such simple things as the fact that he can talk about her onstage and she can disappear. They're both natural introverts, though Birbiglia kinda sorta becomes an extrovert so that they have the ability to escape from awkward social situations. 

This is Birbiglia. 

Almost every social situation is awkward. They've agreed they don't want kids, but after several years of being happily married Jen changes her mind. Birbiglia, whom I just don't want to call Mike, doesn't. "The New One" is largely about that reluctance. Birbiglia wants to maintain the status quo. It works. They're happy. He's happy. He's built a successful career. They've built a routine that satisfies. For Jen, 'er Clo, suddenly something is missing. For him, not so much. "The New One" is filled to the brim with Birbiglia's trademark neuroses, expressed here as painfully transparent and frequently funny revelations about what it's like to face parenthood reluctantly, become a reluctant dad, try but mostly fail to maintain the status quo, then somehow come out the other end with a stronger marriage, an amazing wife, a child you love, and a life that's pretty awesome. 

There will be times in "The New One" when you'll love Birbiglia. There will be times in "The New One" when you'll read something and you'll gasp and go "Who is this stand-up comic I thought I knew?" Then, you'll go back to loving him again. 

Much like life and love and marriage and parenting, "The New One" is a journey with lots of ups and downs, laughs and poignancy. The stories that unfold in "The New One" are told from Birbiglia's perspective, though Jen, who's an increasingly popular poet who writes under J. Hope Stein, has her poetry woven into the fabric of the book in such a beautiful way that it balances the stories and offers her insightful, intelligent, and often quite revealing perspectives. 

If you're familiar with the stage production or Birbiglia's 2019 Netflix production that served as the foundation for this book's material, some of "The New One" certainly won't feel as fresh or new and that's certainly something to be considered. However, "The New One" possesses something special with Birbiglia's uncommon vulnerability, Jen's lyrical tapestry, and a literary experiment that digs deep and discovers both comedic and familial gold.

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