Simon Russell Beale, one of England’s most acclaimed stage actors, hasn’t appeared on the New York stage since he did a double-bill of The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard at Brooklyn Academy of Music three seasons ago. He has also played Broadway in Spamalot and Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers.
Most unexpectedly, and without much fanfare, Beale has returned for the New York premiere of Simon Stephens’ little-known 1998 play Bluebird, which is receiving a modest Off-Broadway production by the Atlantic Theatre Company in a tiny space.
Beale plays Jimmy, a somber, late-middle-aged taxi driver in London who works the late shift. For the bulk of the play, Jimmy quietly listens in on the numerous confessions made by his passengers, which range from a prostitute and club bouncer to a man whose daughter was stabbed to death years ago, who recounts how he nearly murdered her killer once he was let out of prison.
This never-ending series of cab fares make Jimmy out to be a passive character, but ultimately lead to a final sequence where he confronts his ex-wife and reveals to the audience his own dark secret, which explains how he came to adopt his current lifestyle.
Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s spare production features just a few chairs out front, which Beale rearranges himself, to represent the taxi cab, but manages to evoke a late-night journey through dark alleyways and bad parts of town.
Beale primarily downplays his performance. Only at the end, when he can finally take an active role, he projects a stronger personality. Luckily, Beale is always surrounded by a fine supporting cast.
For the most part, Bluebird makes for a pretty static and slow experience. In spite of the believable way in which Beale’s character builds to a climax, the audience must endure an hour of one-sided conversations in exchange for a final payoff. Who has the time for that kind of investment?