The Sleep Disorder That Keeps on Giving

sleepwalk_with_meMike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk with Me is a theatrical delight -- that rare combination of warm humor mixed with darker issues in a way that diminishes neither. Birbiglia is a stand up-comedian who has moved with this piece into the realm of one-man show, loosely gathering up the details of a story, with many humorous sideline diversions, about a traumatic night when he found himself jumping through the glass of a second-floor motel window, while asleep. It was the beginning of his recognition that he had a serious sleep disorder problem.

Since most of us don't suffer from persistent sleepwalking, one might wonder if his subject is sufficiently universal to hold an audience. It is. Especially because he feeds other issues into his tale: a highly successful and repressive father, garrulous mother, girlfriend and commitment fears, life on the road as a stand-up performer, and other amusing and engaging topics. He even gets laughs out of a dangerous illness he experienced at age nineteen. He's a sort of cheerful everyman who finds himself caught in a web of nighttime terrors. Which, for some years, he was into denying.

The show begins with Birbiglia climbing onto the stage through a broken glass window, oddly shaped, as if a body has flung itself through it. He starts with a cell phone spiel that goes on for quite a while and is very funny. It's like he's kindly trying to tell us to be there with him, and his stage presence is so disarmingly non-theatrical that one thinks this isn't the show itself. It's just tonight he wants to have a little conversation with us. His self-deprecating manner is the opposite of the big, the brash, the screaming comedian. And yet he holds the stage.

Birbiglia's show, produced by Nathan Lane, opened at the Bleecker Street Theatre in November, and its original "limited" run has been extended into March. I highly recommend it for its genuine, very relaxed humor that, nonetheless, totally engages. His story has many strands, but he manages to pull them all together as the 85-minute performance builds to its climax. Like everyone else around me in the full theatre, I was laughing uproariously throughout.

Birgiglia was just so darned low-key and funny, as if you had a cousin who was confiding his private adventures in life, letting you in on his embarrassing secrets, fearlessly revealing his pains and humiliations, but always with a wry grin. His humor has an unforced feel to it. He's not milking laughs. He's just innocently funny. Or so it appears. Of course the thing about comedy that we all know is that it's not simple. So to make it look so is a special gift.

Directed by Seth Barrish in a seamless fashion, Sleepwalk with Me works as a cross between stand-up and a play. It's the fact of the sleepwalk tale itself which moves the work over into a theatre piece. Since Birbiglia's dad was a big believer in the "don't tell anyone anything" philosophy (because "the more people know about you, the more they can use it against you"), the whole monologue is, on one level, get-even time for Birbiglia. Late in the play he declares of his traumatic motel incident: " jumped through a window like the Hulk in my underwear bleeding, but I hadn't been hit by a missile" -- just the sort of personal revelation of which the paternal figure would disapprove. We are all very satisfied at this moment that Birbiglia has so whole-heartedly scorned his father's final advice: "Whatever you do, don't tell anyone." We clap wildly as he exits, wanting to shout at the stage, "No, Mike, tell us some more! Tell us everything!" - Victoria Sullivan

Bleecker Street Theatre, 45 Bleecker Street - Wed.-Fri. at 8, Sat. at 8 & 10, Sun at 4 & 7


Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.