Finally, a chance to see Simon Russell Beale, one of the finest actors drawing breath, up close and personal in a play that suits his astonishingly subtle technique — and the damned show is sold out. The Atlantic Theater Company has done the industry a favor by importing “Bluebird,” Simon Stephens’ strangely fascinating 1998 play about a London cabdriver and the intimate if unsolicited exchanges he has with his fares. Now the industry should acknowledge the favor by putting the show into commercial production.
To say that Beale — a stalwart of the National and the RSC, but, despite having kicked up his heels in “Spamalot,” a relative stranger to these shores — is a minimalist is to say that birds fly. But, like flying, a minimalist performance style is still amazing.
For a long stretch, Beale’s demeanor as the London cabbie Jimmy MacNeill is so understated that he doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all — just sitting stoically in his Bluebird taxi, listening in near-silence to the babble coming from the back seat.
There’s not a whole lot to see in Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s minimalist (what else?) production, either — the elongated brick walls of Rachel Hauck’s set, broken up by pitch-black alleyways; phone booths in harshly lighted alcoves; flashes of neon to cut the darkness; a few chairs to define the seating plan of the taxi interior.
But there is definitely something going on in that urban wasteland, much of it created by sheer design. The changing rhythms of Mark Bennett’s musical background and the ambient noises of Darron L. West’s soundscape carry Jimmy’s cab through distinctly different neighborhoods as, cued by Ben Stanton’s lighting, the night grows deeper and darker.
Slowly, Jimmy becomes caught up in the stories coming at him from the back of the cab. (“I like stories,” he admits, when pushed. “I don’t mind listening.”) It’s not exactly something that he says but the subtle changes in Beale’s posture, the slight turn of his head, the faint flicker of interest in his eyes, that signal the ever-widening break in the invisible wall he’s thrown up between himself and the rest of suffering humanity. At some point it finally dawns that Beale has turned Jimmy completely around, from a sullen grouch into a fully engaged and deeply compassionate confessor figure.
Simon Stephens is a talented young favorite of the Royal Court (for plays like “Wastewater” and “Motortown,” among others), and for the most part, he’s chosen a nice cross-section of London natives to get under Jimmy’s skin. Some of these character studies are fully polished (and smoothly played): a very drunk and extremely woeful upper-class toff (Michael Countryman) whose last line (“What’s going to happen to us all?”) is gut-wrenching; a young hooker (Charlotte Parry) with too much spirit to be broken; an exhausted subway engineer (Todd Weeks) who’s seen too much to sleep without having nightmares.
Others are one-off sketches — some of them startlingly sweet or funny, some of them time-wasters, begging to be cut. And something should really be done about the first passenger, a motormouth who cracks stupid jokes and rambles on to no point or purpose. Not a good opener for an audience trying to adjust to the variety of London accents.
While Stephens has scattered some decent clues that Jimmy has troubles of his own, nothing quite prepares us for the extended scene at the end of the play when the now-vulnerable Jimmy finally connects with Clare (Mary McCann), the woman he’s been calling all night. Brilliantly matched with the heartbreaking McCann in this poignant scene, Beale finally lets us know what it’s like to drive a cab through living hell.