12:38 PM CDT, October 18, 2012
The TBS Just for Laughs comedy festival last summer had many pleasures. But one of its disappointments was the cancellation — or, as it turns out, the postponement — of "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," the highly regarded solo show by Mike Birbiglia. The piece of comedy theater ran for four months at the Barrow Street Theater off-Broadway, where it was presented by Nathan Lane, and garnered strong reviews and awards.
In a phone chat this week, Birbiglia said there were miscommunications between the festival and the venue, the Victory Gardens Theater.
"Victory Gardens told me I would have to perform it in front of another set for a show they already were producing," Birbiglia said. "Our show actually has a set. We would basically have had to produce it on the apron of the stage. It would not have been our show — we would have had to call it 'Mike Birbiglia, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend Unplugged,' or something. We tried to figure it out. In the end, we decided it wouldn't be fair to the audience in Chicago. So we waited until the fall."
With the leaves falling and the Victory Gardens production of "Equivocation" now over, thankfully, the venue has made room for both Birbiglia and his set. The timing turned out to be judicious in another way. As Birbiglia performs live at the Victory Gardens, the Music Box Theatre likely will still be screening the movie version of Birbiglia's first solo show, "Sleepwalk With Me," which was never fully performed in Chicago.
So who is this guy? Birbiglia, who is now 34, pretty much started out as a stand-up comic. Although based primarily in New York, he made several appearances in Chicago clubs, including stints at Zanies and the former Lakeshore Theatre (now Laugh Factory).
He has had various flirtations with network TV executives and more than a few rides in the development theme park. But he figured out in the end that it can be smart for a comedian to go beyond stand-up routines and venture into the loftier realm of the solo show (something with a narrative arc and, as we have seen, a set), especially if there is something in this comedian's own life upon which to peg a show.
In the case of Birbiglia, that initial something was rapid eye movement behavior disorder (or RBD), which leads sufferers to act out their own dreams because the disorder means their muscles work during their sleep. This kind of sleepwalking once led Birbiglia to fall from the second-floor window of a motel, causing serious injury; he now sleeps only on the first floor.
That experience is basically the topic of "Sleepwalk With Me" (the movie is a kind of narrative telling of the live comedy show). One night, he was doing material from the show at Caroline's, a Midtown Manhattan comedy club, when Lane walked in the house. The Broadway funnyman was impressed, and that led to his putting his name on "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend."
"That made a huge difference and completely changed who came to my show," Birbiglia said. "It's the kind of thing I hope to do myself some day, when my name actually means something."
That day may not be far away. The show Birbiglia is performing in Chicago next week is likely to be the basis of his second movie. He's adapting the screenplay right now.
And what's this one about? "The show is about how I decided to get married despite not really believing in the idea of marriage, which I think is a sexist institution originally based on the exchange of property," Birbiglia said.
"I go into it in great detail. One of the things I'm most proud of about the show is that it's simultaneously deeply cynical and very optimistic. It's hard, I think, to be both optimistic and funny."
Birbiglia is, in fact, married (to Jen Stein, who seems to have put up with a lot). When Stein and Birbiglia married, Lane was their witness. "At City Hall," Birbiglia said, "people could not believe their eyes." Hmm.
"I think being edgy is being able to really open up to a group of strangers about how you really feel about something," he said. "I've heard comedians be callous about marriage. My goal is to be honest."
'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend'
When: Thursday through Oct. 29
Where: Victory Gardens at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $45 at 773-871-3000 and victorygardens.org