Sleepwalk With Me
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
November 6, 2008
Mike Birbiglia, the writer and performer of the absurdly funny Sleepwalk With Me, enters through a hole in the gleaming. royal blue wall at the back of the stage. The blue wall is incredibly soothing. It relaxes the stage, bathes it in a warm and inviting light. This applies to the set as well. It contains a brown wooden stool and a thick, white paperback book. The combination creates a welcoming, inviting, wide open space. You might even describe it, if you were prone to really bad puns, as sleepy.
This is a fine, deceiving thing because the hole he enters through looks as though it was made by someone hurling a large, heavy object through it. He ducks and dodges the shards to avoid getting caught on their sharp, jagged edges. Once situated, he asks everyone to turn off his or her cell phones and proceeds to fill that space with peril. Not the kind of peril that puts the audience or the performer in any kind of danger, but the kinds of peril that feed on our deepest fears, insecurities, and discomforts.
One such danger is cancer:
...I think the funniest thing that can happen to a hypochondriac is you get cancer because it confirms every fear you've ever had in your life. You're like, "See? I told you! Remember when...I thought I had rickets? I was probably right about that too...There's gonna be a lot of changes around here!"
Another such danger is death:
So for that week I thought I was going to die—which is an incredible experience if you ever have the chance, because you'll talk to God even if you're not sure there's a God...You're like, 'God? Allah? The Elephant thing from Hinduism?'...I'm brand-loyal to Jesus, but I'm not stubborn. If someone has a plan, I'll hear 'em out.
And then there's his nemesis, Sleepwalking:
And then I wake up and I'm falling off the top of our [five-foot tall] bookcase in our living room and I land on the floor hard on top of our TiVo and it breaks into pieces. It was like one of those stories you hear where people black out drinking and they wake up in Idaho and they don't know where they are and they're like, "Oh no...Hardee's."
Of all the dangers Birbiglia mentions—and there are several more than the ones listed—sleepwalking hovers most menacingly above the proceedings. Not because it's more dangerous than cancer and death; and not because of the significant physical danger into which it puts him and his loved ones. What gives sleepwalking its gravity is the way it absorbs the tensions from the complexities of his life and transforms them into actions he cannot control. This condition, in its least threatening form, finds him doing battle with an imaginary "insect-like jackal" hovering above his bedroom and culminates in an horrific and life-threatening hospital trip after an incident at the La Quinta Inn while on tour in Walla Walla, Washington. Sleepwalking is Birbiglia's powerlessness made manifest and leads him, in the show's closing moments, to a realization that causes a forceful awakening.
Birbiglia is an accomplished comedian so it will be no surprise to learn that the show is extremely funny. What makes the evening extraordinary, though, are the poignant moments that give the humor its heft. At one point in the evening, he is sitting on a stool discussing activities the thick white book discourages people from doing before falling asleep: internet, phone, news, pizza. After giving a hilarious demonstration of himself consuming a travel pillow made of pizza, he switches topics and says:
None of these things are a necessity. They're just excuses not to go to sleep. I'm friends with a lot of people who are insomniacs and they say the reason people are insomniacs is that they are disappointed in how little they've accomplished in their day and by sleeping, they'd be admitting defeat.
The tone of the delivery and the truth of the statement create a dynamic silence, which Birbiglia lets hang. He and director Seth Barrish plant moments like these throughout the show's flawlessly paced hour and 35 minutes. They have the intelligence and the patience to allow such moments and recognize the consequence they add to the comedy. Such fortitude transforms Sleepwalk With Me from a play that could easily have become dazed with its comic abilities into an evening that uses them to help us focus on something more meaningful.