Friday, September 30, 2011

"Bluebird": Confessions are Good for the Soul - Aren't They?

Review by Judd Hollander

There's something about cabdrivers that makes them easy to talk to and confide in. As with bartenders, priests and psychiatrists, listening is part of the taxi driver's job. Such is the case with Jimmy (Simon Russell Beale), a former novelist who now drives a taxi full-time, plying his trade each night on the streets of 1998 London in Bluebird by Stephen Stephens as presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.

Jimmy is the perfect cabbie: quiet, calm and a sort of blank slate. Listening to those who need to talk, engaging those who need human contact, and having just enough of a sense of humor to wheedle information out of those who would rather say nothing. Among his passengers are Guvnor (Tobias Segal), a somewhat seedy-looking plainclothes cop; Angela (Charlotte Parry) a working-girl presently down on her luck; and Robert (Michael Countryman) an officious sort who's suffered a terrible personal tragedy.

In between the tales these and others passengers tell, a portrait of Jimmy begins to emerge. He doesn't own a cell phone, smokes quite a lot, and hasn't seen his wife in five years, although he still thinks of himself as married. Jimmy is also haunted by an incident in his own past, one for which he is desperately trying to make amends.

With Bluebird, the playwright has constructed an absorbing tale of a flawed individual, one trying to atone for past sins, albeit all on his own terms. Not quite a martyr, he continually punishes himself for what has gone on before, projecting an attitude of not caring about what happens to him personally. As evidenced with his choice of lifestyle and his rather fatalistic attitude with some of his passengers.

Indeed, it is the way the different stories are told that really holds one's interest. The darkness of the cab (actually just a few chairs), together with a feeling of oppressive stillness from all around, makes one feel completely immersed in the action. Some of the more affecting tales include Countryman's heart-wrenching portrayal of a man who suffered a shattering loss; and those told by Richard (Todd Weeks), a worker on the London Underground; and Andy (John Sharian), a professional bouncer at a local night club. There's also more than a hint of danger present throughout, with several of the passengers projecting an ominous aura to Jimmy via their attitudes and conversations.

In a nicely nuanced performance, Beale offers a good portrayal of a broken individual whose soul is unpeeled layer by layer over the course of the play. He also brings more than a bit of pathos to Jimmy, someone who never seems truly happy; rather a man putting up a good front and lending an ear when he can. He does his best to help those he comes in contact with through a kind word, cigarette or smile; but never receiving what he himself needs in return.

As the entire play is seen through Jimmy's eyes and experiences, most of the other characters are rather undeveloped, but all acquit themselves well. After all, it's not easy to enrapture an audience just by sitting and talking, but it certainly works here. The only other fully formed person in the piece is Clare (Mary McCann), Jimmy estranged wife, who brings to their meeting years of anger and rage not only for what happened earlier, but also over Jimmy's mysterious absence, one which left her to handle the resulting fallout. Not surprisingly, she is not all that eager to see Jimmy again.

Set by Rachel Hauck, basically a few pieces and props here and there, works very well in contributing to the overall quiet and lonely atmosphere; as does Ben Stanton's lighting and Darron L. West's sound design. Gaye Taylor Upchurch's direction is quite good, letting events come together slowly and naturally, both through the individual stories told and via the overall play itself.

Bluebird is a sobering piece of theatre and a journey through one man's tortured psyche. It also has a somewhat open-ended finale that works perfectly in terms of the contextual structure of the piece.

Also in the cast are Mara Measor and Kate Blumberg.

Featuring: Simon Russell Beale (Jimmy), Tobias Segal (Guvnor/Billy Lee), Michael Countryman (Robert/Man), Todd Weeds (Richard/Enthusiastic Man), Charlotte Parry (Angela), Mara Measor (Girl), Mary McCann (Claire), Kate Blumberg (Janine), John Sharian (Andy)

Written by Simon Stephens
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck
Costume Design: Sarah J. Holden
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Composer: Mark Bennett
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Casting: MelCap Casting
Production Stage Manager: Kasey Ostopchuck
Assistant Stage Manager: Molly Minor Eustis
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Manager; Michael Wade
Associate Artistic Director: Christen Parker
General Manager: Jamie Tyrol

Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company
Atlantic Stage II
330 West 16th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Closed: September 9, 2011

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