Comedian Mike Birbiglia at the Coral Springs Center for the Arts: A Reformed Sleepwalker on Love and Marriage
Nobody likes going to see the doctor. But when your sleepwalking condition has become so detrimental that, in a somnambulatory state, you collapse through the second-story window of a La Quinta Inn and require 33 stitches in your leg, it might finally be time to see a specialist.
This incident happened to comedian Mike Birbiglia, and it became the dramatic centerpiece of Sleepwalk With Me, the critically acclaimed one-man show he developed off Broadway in 2008. The autobiographical show, which charted the sleepwalking exploits he had courtesy of REM sleep behavior disorder as well as the disintegration of his impending nuptials, elevated Birbiglia's status from comedy-club headliner to theater star.
Birbiglia is naturally funny, but his career owes many thanks to his condition. Months without treatment resulted in memorable stories like the La Quinta incident. Reflecting on those times in an interview, he says that he didn't remain an undiagnosed sleepwalker for the funny stories, creatively tempting as they might be.
"I didn't see a doctor because I just didn't want to deal with it," he recalls. "I didn't want to deal with the ramifications of having a disorder and having to take medication and see a doctor and go through all of the stress and frustration that goes with that. That's sort of what the story is about thematically: avoiding things and being in denial about things that you don't want to deal with."
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In Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia, who has the kind of cheeks old ladies like to pinch, was also avoiding the truth about his relationship to his fiancée at the time, a swell and patient girl who was busy selecting a wedding dress and mailing invitations while he hit the road for the first time as a touring comedian, realizing he wanted to get married as much as he wanted a roomful of hecklers. The two worlds couldn't be more out of balance with each other.
Birbiglia's art has earned comparisons to Woody Allen, and Sleepwalk With Me is his Annie Hall, a relationship comedy that ends in failure, but it rings truer than most traditional rom-coms, in which the couples' problems are resolved in tidy packages and intoxicating 360-degree tracking shots around their protracted embraces.
Birbiglia later adapted Sleepwalk With Me into a successful film and a best-selling memoir; so far, he's yet to discover a medium he doesn't love, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Sleepwalk With Me: The Opera next season at the Met. In the meantime, he's busy touring his theatrical follow-up, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, another autobiographical foray into Birbiglia's love life. Hitting the Coral Springs Center for the Arts on January 25, it's a postmortem on his life's worth of messy relationships.
The show's promotional art depicts Birbiglia clutching three ice-cream cones, which, like the romantic prospects in the play, are melting away. "I think the idea is that it's meant to symbolize the loser in love — the guy who is stuck with his ice cream cone, his girlfriend's ice cream cone, and then his girlfriend's boyfriend's ice cream cone — which is a story in the show about my first girlfriend, who had another boyfriend. And also, it's just a nice selling point to have ice cream in your poster because it tricks people into thinking there might be ice cream at the show."
But unlike Sleepwalk With Me, there is light at the end of his marriage tunnel. My Girlfriend's Boyfriend shows how Birbiglia came to detest the very idea of marriage, only to finally enter wedlock himself.
"It's a pretty all-ages show," he says. "I don't curse. And it's good for a date! Unless you feel like the relationship is on the rocks and you feel like the show might bring up too many questions about where the relationship is going.
"I've heard a lot of people say that from my movie, they've broken up with their girlfriends or boyfriends — and even a couple of marriages," he adds. "And then conversely, this one-man show, which ends with me getting married, has a lot of people who decide to get married. So I'm really sending mixed signals with my art, but I hope for the right reasons."
Birbiglia could see that the tide of pessimism was beginning to turn sunnier during his last live show of 2012, in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000 guests in a Bloomington, Illinois, theater. A man asked if he could propose to his girlfriend onstage, and Birbiglia obliged him.
"I fear even telling you this because now I feel like I'm going to get requests from people to propose in Coral Springs. That said, I am open to it," he says. "But I'm proud of that aspect of the show. It's kind of a cynical — but at the same time optimistic — comedy show about love. And in some ways, it's romantic."
We can only assume that the happily married Birbiglia is sleeping better these days — medicated, injury-free, his hands in mittens, and with a sleeping bag up to his neck.
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