By Melissa Rose Bernardo
August 22, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
Kevin Thomas Garcia

If the enduring popularity of HBO’s Taxicab Confessions taught us anything, it’s that people like to share their intimate secrets with strangers…and that we like to watch them do it. And even if you’ve never spilled your guts to the guy driving you home from a Friday-night martini bender, you can probably understand the impulse: Even New York City’s fare rates — $2.50 plus $0.40 for each fifth of a mile (plus surcharges) — are a heck of a lot cheaper than therapy. Plus, you never need to see the guy again. Yet it’s the cabbie’s consciousness that playwright Simon Stephens probes in his strangely fascinating Bluebird, a 1998 work just receiving its American premiere at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company (running through Sept. 9).

At first glance, the Manchester-born London minicab operator — part priest, part psychiatrist, part caretaker (he soothes his riders with cigarettes, offers bandages for their blistered feet) — seems like pretty paltry dramatic fodder. You’re not likely to meet a more ordinary character than the packaged-porkpie-eating, machine-coffee-drinking Jimmy (Simon Russell Beale). Even his fares — to use the proper lingo — aren’t especially exciting. They’re colorful, to be sure: the drunk businessman (Michael Countryman) who discourses on parenthood, mugging, and regret; the amateur philosopher/tube engineer (Todd Weeks) contemplating the ”intransience of love” and the ”communicability of the human spirit.” But these aren’t R-rated conversations, and there’s certainly no hanky-panky in the backseat. Yet Stephens’ characters still manage to captivate. Simply put, he’s an excellent storyteller — think Conor McPherson without the otherworldly element — and he weaves an astonishingly amount of material into the 100-minute running time.

Ironically, it takes an extraordinary actor like Beale to pull off this sort of regular-joe role with total effortlessness. The Olivier Award-winning Beale may be far more renowned for his stage appearances in Britain (his Hamlet is legendary), but each New York City performance is something of an event — not to mention a 180. He made his Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers and received a 2004 Tony nom. He replaced — and I think surpassed — Tim Curry as King Arthur in Spamalot. Most recently, in 2009, he headlined Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, starring as the ax-happy Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard and the heartbreakingly misguided Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Jimmy may not be a royal or a classic Russian antihero, but in Beale’s hands, he’s no less illustrious.

If Bluebird hits a speed bump, it’s near the end, in a climactic encounter between Jimmy and his wife Clare (ATC stalwart Mary McCann, terrifically bitter). ”I can talk more easily when I’m driving,” says a discombobulated Jimmy. ”I can listen with more accuracy…. I think driving is very intimate.” That’s particularly true in director Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s spare staging, in which the cab consists of chairs that Beale periodically rearranges on stage. While Jimmy’s driving, Bluebird is laser-focused. As soon as he opens his metaphorical car door and steps outside, though, the show grinds to an emotional halt. Yet as soon as he starts up his engine again, we’re right there back on the road beside him. A?

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