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Simon Russell Beale shines as a taxi driver in the intimate off-Broadway play 'Bluebird'
NEW YORK (AP) ' This much is clear about the play "Bluebird" ' despite the title, don't expect much happiness on stage.
Simon Stephens' moving play that opened Monday at the Atlantic Theater Company is populated by broken people in pain. There's a manic depressive former teacher, a young neo-Nazi, a drunk jokester, a prostitute, a stressed-out bouncer, the father of a murder victim and a bone-tired subway engineer.
They're all connected by a taxi driver, played with seamless grace by Simon Russell Beale, who picks up each of these damaged London souls over a single shift and lets them vent, like an up-market episode of "Taxicab Confessions."
This is a tender look at anonymous urban lives, revealing the desperate inner thoughts of folks we pass every day, people who share a quiet sadness filled with regret and fear, and yet who yearn for connection and meaning.
"I mean what does it all mean?" asks one of the cab drivers' fares. "Eh? Do you have any idea what it all means?"
Like any tour through a city at night, the moments of sadness are mixed in with moments that are sublime ' a cute teenage girl quietly hums along to the radio and then to Jimmy's delight whispers a William Butler Yeats poem, or a well-dressed couple who simply exchange "I love yous" and then exit.
More of the driver, Jimmy, is increasingly disclosed during each conversation. He turns out to be an Otis Redding-loving, pork pie-eating, homeless former writer who is trying to exorcise his own nightmare: The death of his daughter five years ago and the subsequent crumbling of his marriage.
Jimmy's attempt to reconnect with his estranged wife (played expertly by Mary McCann) on this night gives the play its skeleton. Between fares, he calls her from phone booths, pleading for a meeting. She finally agrees to see him again at the end of his shift.
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch allows each interaction to shine ' some are only a few minutes, others are more involved ' and the dialogue is spoken in a crisp, natural style that makes the audience feel as if they are infringing on private conversations. Stephens' plot may sometimes seem forced and predictable, but it is charming nonetheless.
Beale, who has been called the greatest stage actor of his generation by some in his native Britain, is known for playing Shakespeare and joking around in "Spamalot." Here, he has a slow start, barely speaking during the first few customers' rides as he pretends to handle the driving wheel and flicks his eyes to a nonexistent rearview mirror.
But by the end of the play, Beale has completely fleshed out Jimmy, creating a portrait of a heartbroken, sweet and sad man desperate to make amends for his errors but knowing he never can. His new family turns out to be his fares ' he recycles their stories and observations during the 100-minute play, which made its debut in London in 1998.
"I like the arbitrary nature of that social interaction," Jimmy says. "It's very random. I find that an endless source of inspiration."
It is a play, like the cast, stripped bare ' the taxi is represented on stage by a few chairs and the nine-member cast move them about between scenes. The few props consist of cigarettes and fast-food cups.
Sound designer Darron West broadcasts a gurgle of low traffic sounds and lighting designer Ben Stanton keeps the stage dark, except for shards of headlights sweeping the space.
The title of the play is revealed to have a sad source ' Jimmy, we learn, now lives in his cab, a Nissan Bluebird. And the color blue also finds its way into many of his conversations ' blue eyes, blue smoke, blue skin and blue tattoos.
It's all enough to leave you blue. But a relentless hopefulness permeates "Bluebird," as if the answer to easing modern despair is just one connection away, one hail of a cab.