In this country, we drive on the right. But British actor Simon Russell Beale, who plays a London cabbie in the Atlantic’s revival of Simon Stephens’s Bluebird, can drive however he likes. Beale lacks the build and looks of a leading man. He’s small and slightly plump, with froggy eyes and sagging cheeks. However, this hasn’t stopped him from giving splendid performances in roles to which he doesn’t seem suited: Konstantin, Ariel, Andrew Undershaft. People still speak of his Hamlet.
So it isn’t such a surprise to find him behind the wheel of a part he doesn’t seem to fit. Jimmy, who roams London nights in a Bluebird Nissan minicab, is described in the text as a muscly, Manchester-born sort nearly 20 years Beale’s junior. This doesn’t faze the actor, and the first hour of the piece is a pleasure, as Jimmy engages or ignores his various fares—a prostitute, a former teacher, a grieving father, a club kid, a neo-Nazi.
During these conversations, staged on a quartet of yellow chairs and elegantly lit by Ben Stanton to suggest passing streetlights, Jimmy trickles out snippets of his biography. He reveals a former career as a novelist, a wife he hasn’t seen in five years, a daughter dead just as long.
Stephens offers a nuanced, if somewhat jaundiced portrait of ’90s London, particularly in the words of Richard (Todd Weeks), an Underground engineer. He speaks of how the city devours people: “Good, healthy, normal people,” he says, “with legs, hair, eyes, bowels, bollocks, hopes, hungers, all manner of normal human faculties. You see them on that last train and they’ve grown totally fucking empty.”
Disconnection, barrenness, and loss are the undercurrents that thrum beneath the play. Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch stuffs the scenic interstices with moody mime and solemn music. Her choices seem unnecessarily apocalyptic, but they work well enough until the final scene, when Stephens forces a rendezvous between Jimmy and his estranged wife (Mary McCann), laying bare the emotions the play has otherwise obscured. In particular, Jimmy delivers a dangerously sentimental monologue about his daughter’s death.
It takes a fine actor to prevent that speech from devolving into bathos. Good thing Beale was for hire.