Simon Russell Beale likes challenges. And so far, his résumé has been accommodating.
"I've been very lucky in my career," says the Olivier Award–winning British actor. "Because things unexpectedly come up. Like Spamalot." Beale played King Arthur in the Monty Python musical on Broadway. "I had been doing all this Shakespeare and thinking, 'I need a change.' Then suddenly the phone rang and there was this wonderful musical."
We've seen plenty of Beale on this side of the Atlantic. Over the last decade or so, he has performed in classics from Shakespeare to Chekhov, usually to resounding critical acclaim.
Broadway — where he earned a Tony Award nomination for his debut, in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers — and the Brooklyn Academy of Music were the places to find him — large forums both. It was getting monotonous. A change was in order. "I wanted to do something different," explains Beale. "The last few years, I was always doing something big." An offer to do an intimate play in a 90-seat Off-Broadway space — Simon Stephens's Bluebird for Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2 — seemed just the ticket. Opening night is Aug. 22, for a limited engagement through Sept. 9.
"This is my big test as an actor," says the man who has already played Hamlet, Iago, Galileo, Andrew Undershaft and The Seagull's Konstantin. "I wanted to test myself. It happened to be a modern play, too, which I don't do very often."
Stephens is known for the bruising quality of his work. But Bluebird is an earlier, more innocent effort by the writer. "It has a beating heart," says Beale. "It's about brutalized people. There's a glimmer of something at the end. Not exactly hope. But acceptance."
Bluebird focuses on the driver of a London cab and his interactions with the late-night passengers he ferries home.
"He's on the lower end of the spectrum of the cab driver world," explains Beale. "He drives a car that's halfway between the London black cabs and a gypsy cab. He picks up mostly drunken customers. Prostitutes, a depressed teacher. The difference in passengers as soon as darkness falls is quite marked."
Paying the fare and rounding out the cast are Charlotte Parry, Michael Countryman, John Sharian, Kate Blumberg, Tobias Segal and Todd Weeks. Mary McCann plays Beale's wife.
The actor talked extensively to Stephens about the play. The playwright was never a cabbie himself, but he's had some experience having his ear bent by strangers. "Some of the extreme conversations in the play were taken from when he was a barman. He picked up a lot of drunken speeches. The two professions have that weird thing in common of an anonymous audience who's willing to listen."
Beale has never driven a taxi, either. And that's a good thing for greater London. "I'm a really bad driver," he says with a chuckle.
The cabbie in Bluebird may be willing to absorb a sob story or two because he's carrying around a weighty one himself. Beale doesn't want to give away the ending, but he does allow that his character has done something "terrible" in the past. "The play is about how you can live with something devastatingly bad," he says, "and how you move on."