The OId Man and the Pool review: Mike Birbiglia's musings on aging and mortality are full of humor and heart
There aren't many instances when I find myself, a first-generation Latin American woman from Los Angeles, relating to a middle-aged white man from Massachusetts. I mean, I don't even like wearing closed-toed shoes. Can you imagine the winters? Ugh, hard pass. And yet... watching Mike Birbiglia's new one-man show, The Old Man and the Pool, I felt connected to him, reliving some of my own recent medical traumas and finally being able to laugh at them and release a little of the anxiety I've been carrying.
Reflecting on how his visits to the doctor's office have become more frequent as he's gotten older, the comedian has begun to think more about death and aging. The fact that he will be 56 when his now 6-year-old daughter is 19 hit him particularly hard. In the 80 minutes he is on stage, Birbiglia discusses being diagnosed with urinary cancer in his younger years and diabetes around the time he became a father. Now he's pondering mortality after his doc revealed he has some scary heart issues — as well as unpacking his reluctance to do the things he's been told will help, like swimming.
The artful storyteller he is, Birbiglia then recounts being taken to the YMCA for swim lessons as a kid — his only attempt ever at swimming, and entering a YMCA. He pairs his hilarious observations of being child-size with details of his experiences in the locker rooms, including one instance involving an old man and some powder (I'll let you imagine what the sight of that was like for young Birbiglia). The tales that unfold are charming and gripping at times, peppered with occasional cheesy punchlines. Birbiglia is smart enough to play up those moments, leaning into his dad jokes. His face also completely lights up at the mention of his daughter — even when he talks about her immature little jabs at his expense. The audience I saw the show with was more than happy to hear about kids, as The Old Man and the Pool is a work created by a baby Gen Xer for Gen Xers (it unapologetically screams, "Ouch, my knees!").
Birbiglia is excellent at his craft, knowing when to guide the audience through an emotion and when to perfectly execute a gag that has slowly been building. The subtle set design is just effective enough to conjure the smell of that YMCA from his memory; it brings a quiet vividness that fits well with his narration.
Written by Birbiglia and directed by Seth Barrish, The Old Man and the Pool is casually endearing and witty. Birbiglia's strength is his effortless delivery. You never feel like he's performing a bit, but rather like you're throwing back a beer with your funniest friend, a guy you're meeting up with again for the first time in years. A lot has changed; nothing has changed. A
The Old Man and the Pool is playing at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 28.