It has taken 13 years for Britisher Simon Stephen’s beautifully written, tenderly sad play “Bluebird” to cross the Atlantic. But what makes it even sadder is that audiences here have been given such a short time to see this play in which the lauded British actor Simon Russell Beale has the key role of Jimmy, an inconsolably demoralized London cab driver.
Beale gives an intensely focused, exceedingly revelatory performance as Jimmy, but it is also the variously idiosyncratic, neurotic, and also essentially demoralized “fares” with whom he interacts that account for much of the play’s interest. These are played by eight superb supporting players, some of whom play two characters, who not only add a vivid and cumulatively imposing reality to the play but also serve, as they are meant to, as unsuspecting enablers for Jimmy as he continues on his own difficult and emotionally painful journey. Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch has enabled the entire company to provide a terrific theatrical experience.
Given the accolades Beale has received and continues to receive for his performances as an associate artist at the National Theater and at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he is mainly recognized for having transformed (to the delight of English and American audiences) such key roles as Hamlet and Konstantine in “The Seagull.” If as they say you are only as good as your last role, Beale’s performance as Jimmy is sure to become unforgettable for those lucky enough to see it.
A former published novelist, Jimmy is haunted by a tragedy of his own making, an accident that happened five years earlier. The accident also caused Jimmy to effect a rather sudden and shocking dissolution of his marriage. Coupled with the news that he has just lost his job as a writer, his despair is so shattering and debilitating that it has remained as a constant, unforgiving source of self-torment even in his new life as a cab driver. Unable to return or even face his wife, Clare (Mary McCann), since the night of the accident, Jimmy disappears without a trace while also affecting a new identity.
The play begins with Jimmy’s decision to see his wife after five years with no communication. Stopping on the road to use a public phone, his first attempt to talk to Clare is, as you might suspect, unsuccessful, although, even at that initial point, we may assume that another attempt to reach her is forthcoming. He has something he wants to give her. That something remains a mystery until the very end.
Jimmy apparently also has something to offer to the various men and women whom he picks up during the course of one evening. It is these detours that bring him into contact with some very interesting and provocative characters. Able to define each of their personalities with a few short strokes, the playwright uses them, in spite of their own agendas, to reinforce Jimmy in his mission.
Except for the phone booth off to the side, the stage has only four chairs that Beale adjusts to indicate different directions. Affecting the movements of a driver, Jimmy faces us, his features becoming as neutrally accommodating as are his spoken responses. Seeing his riders through his rear view mirror in the cab that he call “Bluebird,” he is prepared for the typical evening filled with the self-absorbed, sometimes testy, sometimes scary types. But this evening is not typical and we begin to see how Jimmy is gathering the emotional strength he needs for his reunion with Clare.
We are amused at the outset by Jimmy’s first “fare” (Tobias Segal) a motor-mouthed gent whose incessant, inane babbling about the origins of Guinness beer amongst other gibberish allows Jimmy only one opportunity to speak, “That’s four pounds seventy. “ Segal is afforded another quick and quirky spin later on as a young fascist with a broken wrist.
Michael Countryman (so marvelously entertaining in the delightfully picaresque Off Broadway play “Shipwrecked”) offers a double exposure of his versatility. He is a deeply affecting character as Robert who gets into the cab drunk and distraught. Having just found out that the burglar who murdered his 17-year-old daughter 10 years ago is getting out of jail, Robert can’t help venting his rage and the feeling of hopelessness to the empathetic Jimmy. Also very fine is Todd Weeks who also plays two engaging characters but is particularly funny as a young man who admires Jimmy’s shirt but, to Jimmy’s chagrin, seems to have never heard of Marks and Spencers.
With little more than glimpses into their personal pain, occasional indifference, and self-absorption, we are, indeed, able to see how these characters almost conspiratorially provide the peripheral groundwork for the resolve and redemption that Jimmy has been working towards for the past five years.
Stopping for a coffee break, Jimmy shares some prickly patter with Angela (Charlotte Parry), a young warily defensive, visibly abused prostitute who declares “I’m going to live in America, Santa Barbara.” When he asks her why she says, “My favorite telly program is ‘Santa Barbara.’”
There is also a meaningful encounter with Richard (Todd Weeks), a tough, straight-talking Scottish engineer on the London Underground who confesses that he would like to quit and be a highly paid driver who delivers illegal packages to unnamed parties. More unexpected are Richard’s philosophical inquiries — “Do you believe in the intransience of love?” and “What about the communicability of the human spirit?”
Jimmy is startled by the sudden transformation in personality that occurs as Andy (John Sharian), a hulky nightclub bouncer, changes from being hostile and confrontational to being sweet and gentle the minute he starts to talk about his wife and children. Notwithstanding the aborted small talk, Jimmy’s more sustained conversations show him to be able to open up slowly to strangers, in particular to Janine a manic depressive and promiscuous former school-teacher played by a terrific Kate Blumberg.
It is in his eventual meeting with Clare that Jimmy clings to hope for any possibility of redemption. McCann is excellent as the unforgiving Clare, who agrees to see Jimmy despite having found a new life with another man. The play’s final scenes between Jimmy and Clare are heartbreaking as they provide a closure to the past, but also a realistic path to the future. “Bluebird” is an early play by Stephens, the first of several he has since had produced at the Royal Court Theatre. What’s holding up delivery here?
“Bluebird,” through Friday, September 9, Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street. $55. 212-645-1242. Note: Some online brokers may have tickets.