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Theatre in Review: Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes (Lynn Redgrave Theater)

Mike BIrbiglia. Photo: Joan Marcus

The title of Mike Birbiglia's latest piece perplexes: Whoever thinks of him telling jokes? Shaggy dog stories? Sure. Tales within tales within tales, like so many Russian dolls? Certainly. Bizarrely wandering narratives that eventually snake back to the beginning, if only to prove that there really was a point after all? Absolutely. Birbiglia is, first and foremost, a spinner of yarns, many of them seemingly headed down blind alleys until they come to full -- and hilarious -- stops. I'd call him a humorist rather than a comedian, except I'm afraid you'd think he is overly highbrow or too high-concept. Far from it: Ninety minutes spent with Mike Birbiglia on one of these cold winter nights is the best possible antidote for seasonal affective disorder. You can't help but leave the theatre grinning.

The thesis of Thank God for Jokes goes something like this: "You should never tell jokes to the people whom the jokes are about." This proposition is sorely tested when Birbiglia is hired to host the Gotham Independent Film Awards in 2012. He has never trafficked in the take-no-prisoners celebrity satire that Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin made famous, so can he really tell jokes about famous people to a roomful of famous people? Testing the waters, he invites the fans who receive his newsletter to submit suggestions, and they come up with some amusingly unkind -- if largely generalized -- comments about the hopelessness of the independent film scene. As it happens, however, Birbiglia has an absolute nuclear device of a gag, referencing the viral video of the director David O. Russell's scabrous takedown of Lily Tomlin on the set of the film I Heart Huckabees. Dare he deliver the joke, standing only twenty feet away from Russell?

On the long road to the Gotham Awards, there are many oases of laughter, including an essay on his wife's chronic lateness that becomes an exquisite exercise in embarrassment for late-arriving audience members; the story of being arrested, at 22, by a traffic cop, an event that snowballs into a major misadventure; a wild, and graphic, narrative about a trip to the urologist; a sharply pointed essay on how "jokes have been ruined by people who can't tell jokes;" a skeptical meditation on scripture (Job is "a Jewish survivalist, the least popular demographic with Christians") and a riotous account of how the scripture routine bombed, big time, at a Christian college; an even funnier story about a disastrous appearance with the Muppets (Hint: Don't drop an F-bomb, however accidentally); a believe-it-or-not encounter with a fellow airline passenger who suffers from an extreme nut allergy; an eye-opening anecdote about swapping child-rearing hints with President Obama; and a soul-baring inventory of the too-cute inside jokes he shares with his wife, many of them rooted in their mutual worship of their pet cats.

Along the way, as usual, Birbiglia treats us not so much as an audience but as his co-conspirators -- What other comic can get such a resounding laugh by simply looking the audience in the eye and saying, "I know"? -- as he casts a stark light on the thousand and one absurdities underpinning modern life. In his earlier appearances, in shows like Sleepwalk with Me and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, he showed an appealing diffidence, as if he couldn't quite believe he was being paid to talk to us. Having grown in confidence, he has acquired a wicked glint in his eye that says, We're all in on the joke -- aren't we?

And while you're laughing, you barely have time to notice how neatly he slips a few serious thoughts into the discourse: For example, that nut allergy routine leads to an encounter with a fan who asks him to sign his EpiPen, an experience that is both enlightening and humbling. And without seeming to pander or get unduly solemn about it, he manages to present the Charlie Hebdo murders as an example of what happens when comedy kills in quite the wrong way. By the end of Thank God for Jokes, it's hard to not be moved by the deep feeling he displays for his hard-won talent and the laughter he shares.

The rest of the production, under the direction of Seth Barrish, is thoroughly professional, if understandably understated. Beowulf Borritt's set design makes good use of a circular stage backed up by an array of stained-glass windows; there is also a video of Jimmy Kimmel introducing Birbiglia at the Gotham Awards. The lighting, by Aaron Copp and Davison Scandrett, and sound, by Jim Corona, are totally, and efficiently, in the service of the star.

Does Birbiglia finally risk it all on the David O. Russell joke? Let's just say you shouldn't expect to see him sharing a screen anytime soon with Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro. But that's just fine; based on the reaction of the audience at the performance I attended, the comedian has attained rock-star status with his fan base. "I get it. I'm a niche," he says at one point. That may be the one slightly dishonest thing he says all night. -- David Barbour

(11 February 2016)

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