Driven by Simon Russell Beale
By Isa Goldberg
Famed British actor, Simon Russell Beale, known on our shores as the befuddled philosophy professor in Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers,” or alternately for his classical roles in productions of Chekhov and Shakespeare, also imported from London, makes a rare appearance Off Broadway in “Bluebird.” As the mini cab driver Jimmy, Beale remains planted in the driver’s seat – a wooden chair – his hand cemented to an imaginary wheel throughout most of the play’s 90-minutes. From the start, his visage reflects the anxious, tense look of a man whose conscience is never clear. Jimmy’s eyes dart about wildly; he is always on the look out.
One of his early passengers, an upright businessman, deftly portrayed by Michael Countryman, asks to visit his daughter’s first London apartment. There he unloads the story of her murder. Each arrival brings a new episode as Jimmy encounters a prostitute (Charlotte Parry), a bouncer (John Sharian), a young man with a broken wrist (Tobias Segal), and a former school teacher (Kate Blumberg) who just wants to be told a story. These lonely, pre-occupied characters with whom he spins around occupy his late night duties. And their seemingly unrelated series of monologues offer the drab fodder of Simon Stephen’s drama, as well as the vehicle for creating a window into the man behind the wheel.
Outside of Beale’s penetrating portrayal, the play is somewhat boring. Its plotless narrative is interrupted only by Jimmy’s visits to a pay phone to call Claire (Mary McCann). And while we catch glimpses of her in the background, Claire’s role in Jimmy’s life remains somewhat amorphous, until she finally agrees to meet him and take a ride in his mini cab. Through their encounter the moral ambiguity that shroud’s Jimmy’s Sisyphean existence, driving around and around the city, is revealed.
This is not not subtle dramaturgy, nor is it uplifting material. There are only minimal physical props, and for most of the play not much happens. The conversation serves primarily to perfume the air with heavy-handed foreshadowing. Indeed, it is Beale’s ability to create a completely transparent inner life in spite of the fact that we know very little about his character that is the productions’ sustaining element. So much so, that by the end of the play the audience feels as if they have lived not only inside the cab but also in the depths of Jimmy’s consciousness. Still, one hopes that director Gaye Taylor Upchurch would have brought the other characters into sharper focus to create a more connected story.
Barely set in a cave-like space, with a steel door in the back indicating a garage, Rachel Hauck’s scenic design reflects the character’s entrapment. Ben Stanton’s lighting makes us feel like we’re moving through an urban dungeon.
“Bluebird’s” music, composed by Mark Bennett, fills the space between interludes with sounds that evoke the heavy stroke of a Spanish guitar, or the eerie twang of Indian music – urban jungle music that progresses from alarming to threatening. But the one song that matters to Jimmy is Ottis Redding’s “My Girl. ” The disc is one of his few belongings, all of which are stashed in the trunk where he “lives” – his cab. But it is the song’s longing – expressed in such a simple and loving way – which contrasts with Jimmy’s sordid fate. And the intensity, the razor sharp clarity, which Beale brings to a fallen character makes for an unforgettable evening.
“Bluebird” performs Monday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturday at 2:30pm at the Atlantic Theatre (330 West 16th St) through September 9th. For tickets call 212-279-4200 or go to www.atlantictheater.org.