by James W. Moore, Winooski playwright, director, and actor
Mike Birbiglia is hilarious. And sincere. And moving. And funny. His My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend played the Flynn here in Burlington, Vermont on February 9. Having heard his work on recordings and on This American Life, I felt that I knew what to expect. Seeing Birbiglia perform live was an entirely different experience, however. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is a one-man show about a relationship (etc.) that melds stand-up comedy with storytelling and makes for a very funny, and very engaging performance. That’s the part I expected.
Here’s what I didn’t expect.
Mike Birbiglia is a very gifted physical performer. His re-enactment of a gymnast’s failed dismount (in slow motion, with internal monologue) was a thing of beauty, as was his physical re-interpretation of a first date on the Scrambler—a carnival ride that spins cars in a circle, on arms that spin circles on an entire contraption that, itself, moves circularly (totally unimportantly, it was one of my favorite rides). Watching Birbiglia move in these moments was delightful and funny, but also precise and clean. Damn if I don’t want to see Birbiglia in a dance piece. And I know just the choreographer (Mike, call me).
And while we’re on the Scrambler: No one structures a story quite like Birbiglia and his director, Seth Barrish. The Scrambler could stand as a road map to My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Early on in the show, Birbiglia leads us up to the hook of the story—a traumatic car accident (“T-boned: that’s the culinary term”) after an argument—and then loops back to tell us more, who the parties of the argument are and their relationships. Within that loop, he loops back further into the characters’ histories, far enough to encompass first kisses and relationships. He keeps all of these stories spinning, each one engaging enough that we, like the T-boned narrator, become disoriented, and forget where we are.
One of the things that make this performance work so well is how Birbiglia and Barrish keep track of the story in spite of this occasional disorientation. With these two working together, we are in very safe narrative hands. Birbiglia keeps closing off loops, and setting others in motion, and when, near the end, they all re-align once more with that initial hook, the audience is right there with him. The experience of all of those other loops allows us to see this critical moment through a very much altered lens that lends more depth and complication to it.
Barrish and Birbiglia also use space to keep us on course with the story. I was struck by how many times, in relaying the story of certain arguments between he and his girlfriend, Birbiglia would end up in the exact same spot on the stage, as he repeated her argument-winning refrain. The re-interpretation of the Scrambler ride is echoed in a run to catch a flight while struggling with luggage, and again in a lovely/hilarious coda that I won’t describe here. None of this feels forced, or is unnecessarily highlighted: he’s just there, in that place on the stage, or with that gesture, and it registers with us. We know where we are, if just for a moment before the Scrambler ramps up again.
My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is the best kind of hybrid piece. It’s a well-told story that keeps surprising us at each turn, while it covers years and years of life experience. It’s a stand-up routine; it’s a one-man show. It’s an engaging evening of theater, and tonight, in Burlington, Birbiglia happily scrambled us.
Read more of James’s writing at jameswmoore.wordpress.com