RedEye

Mike Birbiglia, for now, is our everyman

Mike Birbiglia outlines, in essence, three strikes against marriage: It's based in the medieval notion of the exchange of property; mutual monogamy is almost impossible to achieve; and, since he's not an especially happy guy and has few prospects for becoming so, there's little logic in anyone actually wanting to share his space.

But since Birbiglia's monologue, which had its Chicago premiere Thursday night at the Victory Gardens Theater, introduces a girl named Jenny very early on, whom Birbiglia paints as a sweet, commitment-averse, unconsciously sexy hipster, you are not wildly amazed to discover that, by the end of some 90 minutes, Birbiglia has revised his opinion on that most noble of institutions.

But then, narrative suspense is not Birbiglia's thing. Telling personal stories is Birbiglia's thing. He is one of those recovering club comedians who has figured out that if you don't bill yourself as merely telling jokes but construct a yarn with an arc, you can soon find yourself filling theaters with people actually listening to what you have to say, as distinct from drinking fruity cocktails and talking among themselves.

"My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," Birbiglia's current show, has a very sophisticated arc. He has his main story — the romance with Jenny and the slow march to mutual commitment — but he also veers back to the embarrassments of his youth and various other digressions involving a couple of terrible car accidents.

One of his foremost skills is the ability to stand outside of this story when necessary. When the audience reacted with sympathetic sounds at one of his early personal humiliations, he gave a wry grin. "I know," he said. "I'm in the future too."

Birbiglia packed the Biograph Theatre on Thursday night for a show that was postponed from the Just for Laughs Festival in June. He's well known to the public thanks to many appearances on the radio show "This American Life" and the success of his movie "Sleepwalk with Me" (based on his previous live show). Tellingly, when Birbiglia came out onstage, admired the room and asked who had been here before, almost no one indicated they had.

His is a distinct crowd, mostly 20- and 30-somethings out on dates (strangely revealing dates those must be, given the material). Many in the crowd looked rather like Birbiglia himself, whom you might call (and some have) a slacker comedian or a former nerd extracting a little slow-burning, National Public Radio-style revenge on his former aggressors. He suggests that he is a "sex, maybe" kind of prospect for women, which is worse than being a "sex, definitely" but better than being a "sex, no," a previous ranking of his.

Certainly, his onstage persona is low status and awkward in space; he casts himself as a guy to whom things happen — cars crash into him, girls approach or leave him — rather than a guy who actually makes things happen. He does, at times, skate close to the problem that all everyman comedians face as they get more successful: They're not everymen anymore. Stephen Merchant had this issue when he started talking about how guys always have to pay for things on dates (true, but there was something disingenuous about the wealthy co-creator of "The Office" complaining about taxi fares). Here, Birbiglia makes reference to his traveling and doing shows as his relationship has its ups and downs, but he never really confronts the elephant in the room, which is whether Jenny is dating him because he is a rising comedian with a movie career, and whether she was aware that every little texted "hi" of their meandering courtship was fodder for a show.

Perhaps that's too meta for Birbiglia. But he will have to deal with it in the future, as did Spalding Gray and as does Mike Daisey.

For most, though, Birbiglia's stories of throwing up on carnival rides or visiting girlfriends only to discover that a better-looking rival is also on the guest list will offer some genial, intelligent, well-crafted entertainment and a few shudders of recognition. The salient question is: How well would you do getting your Joe or your Jenny if you looked and acted like Birbiglia but didn't have your own dweeb-cool show?

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Monday

Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Tickets: $45.50 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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