Downtown’s Ahmanson Theatre has begun this season with back-to-back self-deprecating solo performances by male comedians joking about family issues.
Despite those surface similarities, they are miles apart in tone and style, but both deliver thoroughly thoughtful, wonderfully satisfying results.
While Latin History for Morons highlighted John Leguizamo’s chameleon-like skills at portraying dozens of character changes, in-your-face bawdy humor and frenetic pacing, Mike Birbiglia’s autobiographical The New One is akin to having coffee with your pal, that is if your friend is nonstop funny and endlessly fascinating.
Directed with a gentle hand by Birbiglia’s frequent collaborator Seth Barrish, the 80-minute intermission-free New One, which appeared on Broadway before its recent tour, runs through Nov. 24.
Though it’s closer to a long-format stand-up routine, Birbiglia doesn’t feel out of place in a theater, in large part because his monologue is tight, structured and builds into a single cohesive tale that you can easily picture being performed by a full cast.
The plot may center on Birbiglia’s becoming a father — and his fervent desire not to — but the story’s lynchpin is furniture.
From his first couch — an abandoned piece of junk — to the beloved ambiguously colored favorite place for his wife and him to share thousands of hours laughing and crying, the couch (portrayed by a solitary simple wood stool) is his symbol for comfort and consistency.
His place on the couch, as well as his entire way of life, is threatened by his wife when she says she wants a child.
Birbiglia recites his list of seven reasons he doesn’t want one (it’s actually much longer), including that he thinks there shouldn’t be any more children, anywhere, ever. Don’t worry, he says children already born can finish their time being young — but that’s it.
The list touches on his sleep disorder, which 15 years ago caused him to jump through a second-floor window, and which became the source for his first solo show Sleepwalk With Me. Now, he sleeps in a zipped sleeping bag while wearing mittens.
Somehow, his wife convinces him they should try to become parents, which is when things really begin to unravel for him while becoming increasingly funny for everyone listening.
Birbiglia’s timing and delivery are impeccable. Few-second pauses before unexpected punchlines, and his mumbles of hysterical asides prove he’s aware of how to get the most out of the material. He also adds short poems penned by his wife that are poignant punctuations to a few scenes.
Birbiglia has called Barrish’s direction invisible, and it is low-key, but the blocking adds a bit of action that enhances the pacing of the story. Likewise, Beowulf Boritt’s minimal set design offers one impressive surprise. Also, Aaron Copp’s lighting accents some of the most tender and intense moments, bathing Birbiglia in deep reds and blues.
What makes The New One work so well, though, is its honesty. Birbiglia never tries to make anything epic or insane, so almost anyone old enough to have a child — or to wrestle with the choice — can identify with his feelings and actions. There’s only one story he admits being embarrassed to tell, but he unloads the unflattering anecdote because he believes many men are so horrible that he is “decent” by comparison.
The other impressive attribute is its length. There’s not a line that feels expendable. Everything fits, and its ending is as satisfying as its open.
Like Leguizamo’s latest effort, a filmed version of The New One will soon appear on Netflix, but there’s no way it will capture the way Birbiglia plays off the audience, and it will sorely lack the knowing laughs of hundreds who have been in similar situations.
This is a story that earned its place at a prestigious theater, and it’s one that should be shared by as many people as possible.
The New One runs through Nov. 24 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. or centertheatregroup.org.