by Eric J. Grimm
There has never been a better time to see Mike Birbiglia live than now. With his unkempt appearance and propensity to tell stories about his sleeping disorder and terrible luck with women, he’s never seemed likely to rank among the great comedians of his age but years of trial and error on comedy stages across the nation have paved the way for him to create polished comedy sets that allow you to marvel at how skillfully he strings stories together while you catch your breath between laughs. His new show, Thank God For Jokes, now playing at The Lynn Redgrave Theater, is a masterful meditation on religion, political correctness, and what goes into a joke. His thesis is a strong one and he uses it to show off his sly gifts for physical and vocal performance in a remarkably textured ninety minute show.
Birbiglia is a comedian continuingly on the rise, having appeared on multiple broadcasts of This American Life and acted in many movies and television shows over the last five years. A stand-up might feel more comfortable in a comedy club environment, but Birbiglia is an Off-Broadway draw playing packed houses in theaters where his solo shows are heavily geared toward storytelling and overarching themes, even as punchlines pummel throughout. The show, directed by Seth Barrish, is inspired in part by the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting in which satirists were murdered for their controversial depiction of Muhammad in their magazine. Birbiglia uses this incident as a jumping off point to question what jokes are and what makes them offensive. He seamlessly integrates stories about his marriage and his ascent to cultural prominence all the while downplaying his growing celebrity by reminding the audience that he continues to find himself in embarrassing situations.
Birbiglia has been a skilled comedic writer for years but his transformation into a fully-fledged performer is stunning in this setting. He commands the small space, flinging himself from end to end and then finding appropriate moments to stand still at the center. He varies the pitch and tone of his voice throughout, singing to the rafters and whispering audibly for maximum effect. All of the nuanced work he puts in builds to a terrific and painful story about a nasty encounter he had with film director David O. Russell at an awards ceremony Birbiglia was hosting. This tale brings Birbiglia’s message clearly into focus: he’s at the top of his game in knowing what makes audiences laugh and even that sets him back with those who might be offended by his output. It seems simple enough, but Birbiglia communicates this sentiment in a way that reveals that he is not just a gifted performer but also an expert on comedy.
Mike Birbiglia: Thank God For Jokes. Through May 29 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater (45 Bleecker Street, between Lafayette and the Bowery). www.birbigs.com
*Photos by Joan Marcus