Review: Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me”
It’s been four years in the making, including a debut at this year’s Just For Laughs festival and a recent “Sleeping While Standing” fine-tuning tour, and yet, as previews for Mike Birbiglia’s Off Broadway one-man show come to a close, the self-effacing comic readily admits he’s still working on the stage equivalent of a final cut. Longtime fans of the Comedy Central and Bob and Tom fave have come to expect such perfectionism from his stand-up, a trait now underlying each measured pause, painstakingly controlled rise and fall of pitch and endearingly befuddled utterance of trademark phrases “I knooow!” or “Oh! No!” And while he’s grown away from a more sarcastic style over the course of four albums, here Birbiglia delivers his most cohesive and introspective material yet.
Sleepwalk is partially comprised of established bits revolving around the theme, as the title implies, of the writer/solo performer’s battles with REM behavior disorder, which causes a person to physically act out their dreams, occasionally resulting in injury or worse. Bridging the gaps, Birbiglia utilizes the storytelling chops most recently featured in April’s What I Should Have Said was Nothing DVD to bring conjoining themes of romantic commitment and father-son bonding into the mix. Though it may be difficult for some to follow the diverging plot threads’ chronology and there are no outright applause breaks, the laughs per minute are strikingly high, particularly for frequent callbacks. He’s animated when it matters, just as he’s quietly – even deathly – solemn at key moments, and longtime fans in particular will delight in mentions of Birbiglia’s brother Joe, as well as a few moderately threatening bears.
Overall, Birbiglia brings no huge surprises to a performance he could essentially do in his sleep (pun intended), but great use is made of a minimal set (blue backdrop, stool, The Promise of Sleep medical reference) and key behind-the-scenes contributors (director Seth Barish, producer Nathan Lane). It’s a compliment to say he delivers nothing more than what is expected of him – that is, a unique, ever-evolving performer who consistently raises the bar for young comics everywhere.