Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews
 

 

STAND-UP COMEDY VS. THEATER

 

picture - Sleepwalk With MeTheater Review

by John Topping

published November 21, 2008

 

Sleepwalk With Me

now playing Off Broadway at the Bleecker Street Theatre

open run

 

Mike Birbiglia is adorable.  If you don’t think so from looking at his picture, you might feel differently when you see him live in his one-man comedy act Sleepwalk With Me.  He has a kind of goofy, unsure-of-himself, self-deprecating, slightly lost, good-natured, grown-up kid, beta-male quality that makes you want to either hug him or sling your arm around his shoulders as the two of you head off to play baseball (and I don’t even play baseball, but somehow it seems like it might be fun with Mike).  He’s like the guy at a party whom you barely notice at first, but as the evening progresses, you become more and more intrigued with him.  “He’s so cute,” you think.  “And funny!”

 

If you don’t know who Mike Birbiglia is, he is a comedian, and a fairly successful one.  He impressed Nathan Lane enough for him to lend his name as a producer to Sleepwalk With Me in order to help catapult the show to success.  And the big question is … can a stand-up comedian successfully showcase his talent in a theatrical setting?  Well, that’s a tough call, especially if you like stand-up comedy but don’t particularly care for comedy clubs, wherein you are packed together uncomfortably, half or more of the seats don’t face the stage (even face away from it), and you are forced to buy at least two drinks (usually weak ones), jacking up the modest admission to the price that you would pay to sit comfortably watching in a place like, say, the Bleecker Street Theatre, where all the seats face the stage.  So, in that sense, I’m all for stand-up comedy in theaters, because otherwise I won’t go.

 

But on the other hand, when you put a stand-up comedian in a theater, the level of expectation rises.  Now he has to be not just funny, but funny and theatrical, and, in my book, you had damn well better be doubled over from laughing, to the point that your stomach muscles hurt.  This is where Sleepwalk With Me fell short.  My face muscles ached from a perpetual smile of equal parts delight and anticipation of laughing, but the out-loud laughs were not abundant enough, and my stomach muscles were never threatened by excessive jubilation.

 

But that’s okay, because it’s theater, not stand-up comedy, right?  It just happens to be a guy with a stand-up comedy background telling his story in a theatrical environment.  His story is about his condition of sleepwalking, something that he actually suffers from, and how it affected his life and relationships before he sought help and got it under control (he had to jump through a second-story window and almost die before he stopped procrastinating about it).  It’s a good story, an interesting one.  And if people still listened to spoken-word recordings, this would be an excellent choice of a performance to record.  But, ultimately, although it’s an engaging yarn, it’s not powerful or transforming; not for the audience, anyway.

 

May I coin a term?  Thank you.  Stand-up storytelling.  (Damn it!  A quick Google search revealed that it’s already been coined.)  We’ve seen it before, in John Leguizamo’s Sexaholix … A Love Story and Rick Reynolds’s early 90s piece Only The Truth Is Funny (which actually was powerful and transforming, and stomach-pain-laughing funny), to name a couple (and there are many more).  Okay, I’ve convinced myself:  I am a fan of stand-up storytelling.  It’s neither stand-up comedy nor theater; it’s a hybrid that creates a category of its own.  And best of all, there are no waiters or waitresses handing you a check before the show ends, and blocking your view and distracting your concentration in the process.  But please, stand-up storytellers, make me laugh so hard that I cry; or make me think or feel so deeply that I change.  Is that asking too much?

 

johntopping @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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