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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Simon Russell Beale and Mary McCann.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

Miscasting can occasionally be a blessing in disguise. Take, for example, Bluebird, which the Atlantic Theater Company has just opened at its Stage 2 space. Simon Stephens's play, which premiered in London in 1998, is most notably distinguished by how little happens in it. It follows a taxi driver named Jimmy over the course of his typical evening rounds, but takes an unusual turn only in its last minutes, when its story of despair, redemption, and the vicissitudes of youth finally (but barely) coalesces into a complete dramatic presentation. And it does so then primarily because of its out-of-his-element star, Simon Russell Beale.

Beale, who's appeared on Broadway in David Leveaux's revival of Jumpers and as Tim Curry's replacement in Spamalot, is an acclaimed English actor who's more adept than almost anyone at bringing tragedy to comedy and comedy to tragedy. When he broods, as this play requires him to do a great deal, there always remains beneath his sunken chin and behind his vacant gaze a glimmer of hopefulness, as though displaying permanent defiance of the universe's attempts to extinguish his soul. His every breath is alive with a curious complexity that leaves you wondering whether anyone—including Beale himself—ever knows everything that makes him tick.

Such qualities are ideal for Jimmy, as he's defined entirely by what he says and does in his cab while ferrying around fares. True, his full background, including the matters of how he acquired the cab and why he's so reluctant to leave it, is eventually explained. But that occurs so late that unless you sense the weight restricting Jimmy starting in the first scene, and believe in him enough to join him for the whole ride, you won't arrive at that destination awake. Jimmy gradually becomes more interested in and conversant with his customers as the night proceeds, but Beale ensures that all the engagements are on Jimmy's terms, not theirs. You don't question that Jimmy is in control of his taxi, and by extension his life, so you don't worry that you'll eventually learn everything you need to about him.

What Beale does not—and cannot—communicate is the true scale of Jimmy's loss. Stephens intended the character to be in his early 30s, yet completely separated from any possibility of future normality. Good as Beale is at suggesting optimism in the face of insurmountable odds, he's 50 years old and looks it. Jimmy is a man who had some success as a novelist, a husband, and a father, then squandered all three. You don't believe Beale's version is a man who wasted all those potential opportunities of life and backed himself into a permanent corner; you can't react to him the same way you could a brash young man who invested too much faith in his own invincibility. Beale's performance works as well as it does because of the actor's inherent avuncular humanity, but it seems to have been thrust on him more by time than by self-encouraged adversity.

Without this aspect of the character at Bluebird's core, the play struggles to come together—there just isn't that much else to gain traction. Rachel Hauck's scenic design is minimal, a shadowy, rain-drenched London with the suggestion of a car (three chairs, of course), which Ben Stanton has lit to be barely visible. But what else can be done with the visuals? Likewise, it matters little that director Gaye Taylor Upchurch has maintained the proper pacing and attitude throughout the parade of Jimmy's riders, which include a fine roster of performers such as Michael Countryman and Kate Blumberg appearing for a scene or so each. You don't have time to get to know them, and they can make but a minimal impact on a Jimmy who's already missing his vital center.

The exception is Jimmy's wife, Clare, whom he hasn't seen in a long while but is determined to reconnect with tonight. She's played by Mary McCann, an Atlantic veteran who generally appears in its plays in smaller roles but with this performance proves she deserves star status. She reveals at least as many layers as Beale with but a fraction of his stage time, slowly progressing from a care-worn incredulity to despondent anger to a kind of uncomfortable contentment. McCann's method of attack is the opposite of Beale's: She keeps Clare's rage simmering beneath the surface and doesn't dare to release it in any but the tiniest bursts, a luxury Jimmy has long since forsaken. Yet it's precisely right for Clare: She's been trying to conduct all her affairs free of Jimmy, but can't escape the memory of him or what he took from her; on some level, anger is all she knows.

So when the crushed go-getter and his enduring victim collide, sparks fly and tears flow for the one and only time in Bluebird. Luckily, the scene between Jimmy and Clare is the play's longest, giving both Beale and McCann extravagant time to mine their characters' relationship to each other and reach an emotional compromise each has rightly considered unthinkable. Despite the heaviness of what they discuss, and the pain they must exhume in order to come to terms with each other, you never want their encounter to end. This is a fitting finale, but it would be even more powerful if the rest of the play, and the ruined man around whom it turns, ever really got their motors running in the first place.

Through September 9
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
THIS PRODUCTION IS SOLD OUT. No tickets are available for purchase.

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