Review: Birbiglia pulls no punch lines in new 1-man show

NEW YORK – All jokes are offensive to someone, comedian Mike Birbiglia insists, and that’s OK. When his everyday encounters “become the joke later,” and he exposes the ridiculousness of people he knows to an audience of strangers, he defends himself by saying, “It’s just my side of the story.”

His new stage comedy “Thank God for Jokes,” which opened Thursday at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, is the latest evidence that Birbiglia’s “side of the story” tends to be consistently funny, slightly chaotic and thoroughly entertaining.

The one-man exploration of comedy’s tricky nuances and sometimes dire consequences is both heartfelt love letter and lighthearted farce. Much in the style of his previous off-Broadway successes, the fresh-faced and disheveled Birbiglia weaves together what seem at first to be disconnected personal adventures, most of which begin mundanely and end outlandishly.

These engrossing flashbacks leap wildly between things like an itch attack while handcuffed in the back seat of a police car, an unexpectedly R-rated concert appearance with the Muppets, and mind-blowing prenatal counseling from President Obama.

In Birbiglia’s unique brand of storytelling, the quick-hitting vignettes are gradually and subtly stitched into patchwork narrative. The dramatic arc is slow to form, but becomes reinforced with each riotous sketch.

The story in “Thank God for Jokes” isn’t quite as cohesive or intimate as other Birbiglia’s other pieces. It lacks the emotional thrust of his 2011 production “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.” Nor does it have the gravity of “Sleepwalk With Me,” a hilarious but frightening account of his life-threatening struggle with a dangerous sleep disorder, which was the basis of a screen adaptation and a best-selling memoir.

This time Birbiglia directs the spotlight as much on his craft as on himself, examining what about jokes makes people laugh, or cringe, or even lash out. This thoughtful contemplation gives us a glimpse into the process of a talented comedian. It’s an engaging subject, though not as gripping as the performer’s observations about life and more personal matters.

By the standards Birbiglia set with his larger body of work, “Thank God for Jokes” may not possess that characteristic underlying theme that seems to linger beyond the choruses of breathless laughter.

But in the end, for this warm tribute to the power of jokes, breathless laughter is enough.