Mike Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
March 27, 2011
All relationships fail until they don’t.
- Dan Savage, or several friends of mine paraphrasing Dan Savage
My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show playing at the Barrow Street Theater, begins with a car accident. Leaving a friend’s house after an argument he’s had with his girlfriend regarding the status of their relationship—an argument so bad that he didn’t know “what year it was”—Birbiglia’s car is “T-boned”—hit on the driver’s side at a 90-degree angle—by a man driving a Mercedes. Upon impact, Birbiglia’s car spins 180° and the spin brings with it realizations about his fate: first, he thinks he’s going to die; then he thinks he’s going to be paralyzed; and finally, when the car stops, all is silent. This collision shocks him into taking stock of his relationship and provides the foundation for this funny and heartfelt production.
To understand that relationship though, Birbiglia takes the audience on a journey through the defining moments in his relationship career. Initial insights are funny and sweet. When he discovers his classmates are kissing one another, he is dumbfounded. (“People we know…are making out…with other people we know?!”) And the realization that laughter can be the way into a girl’s heart is hilarious (“One time [a girl I had a crush on] actually said, ‘Mike, you gotta stop making me laugh. I’m gonna pee myself.’…and I was like ‘Wow!’ It was the closest I’d ever come to a vagina.”)
But to say that the road to his current relationship is paved with frustration and humiliation is no understatement. He takes the laughing girl to a carnival where he overeats to horrific effect. To his confusion, another girlfriend asks him not to let anyone know they’re dating. The deception surrounding his first kiss comes back to haunt him. And the older he gets, the more complicated the problems become.
Birbiglia alternates these stories with flashbacks to the accident and its aftermath while filling them with observations about his own quirks, relationships, marriage, kissing, the help centers at cell phone companies, and the application process for running carnival rides. Some are very simple (“It just seemed gross to me, making out. It’s like watching a dog eat spaghetti.”) and others incredibly involved (the exchange at the help center goes to some very unexpected places), but each detail provides a clearer picture of the man at the center of the action and gives form to the pandemonium of his experiences.
That any shape can be given to the chaos might be the evening’s most impressive feat. Birbiglia and director Seth Barrish take the audience on an odyssey from a boy’s discovery that something like love exists to a man’s discovery of the hot mess of love. Because the two know their way around a joke and have the intelligence to understand what propels a good story, the journey can seem whimsical but this seeming artlessness masks a wonderfully scary truth: that no matter your age, no matter how many experiences you’ve collected, and no matter how comfortable you’ve become with the views you’ve developed to make sense of life, love—or relationships, or the simple act of opening yourself up to another human being—never gets less messy. It is only by moving beyond these things that we reveal our humanity and, even better, our dignity, which is what we hope love ultimately gives us.