Is there a comedian cuddlier than Mike Birbiglia? His girth and dress sense suggest a fraternity brother gone to seed, but his pleading eyes and plangent voice give him the air of a little boy lost. During his new show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend at Barrow Street Theatre, his disclosure of past humiliations elicited volleys of sympathetic sighs. When he took his bows at the end, some women in the audience seemed to barely restrain themselves from rushing the stage and subjecting him to a mass embrace.
The gentlest exponent of the alternative comedy scene, Birbiglia combines mournful memories with blithe observational humor (the agonies of customer service, the vagaries of airport security). Though he aims to discuss his decision to marry his girlfriend, he distracts himself with memories of earlier romantic disappointment—many of these stories honed on NPR’s This American Life—as well as riffs on Olympic gymnastics, carnival rides, and lesbian terrorists.
Birbiglia seems reluctant to root for himself in these tales. He cringes at his own behavior, even as he describes it with lacerating specificity, as when he details his teenage make-out technique as “a dog eating spaghetti.” Then he demonstrates it. He appears so forlorn that the audience is moved to support him even as they laugh at him. (And how they laugh. The woman behind me choked herself with chortling.)
Despite the aid of director Seth Barrish, Birbiglia hasn’t really gussied up his radio pieces for live performance or rendered them particularly theatrical. But the Barrow Street stint does at least let him perform his dynamite impression of a rolling suitcase. A suitcase you’d like to hug.