Watching director Jonathan Berry’s compelling, carefully shaded production
of Simon Stephens’s Birdland, which charts the predictable
dissolution of coddled, self-absorbed rock superstar Paul, is like driving
to Milwaukee on surface streets. It takes twice as long as necessary to get
somewhere you’ve known you’ll end up the entire way, yet the unfamiliar
sights along the route make you wish highways had never been invented.

Like fellow British writer Mike Leigh, Stephens privileges meticulously
articulated anecdotes over eventful plotting. Paul’s trajectory from
venerated superstar to unbankable pariah is an expedient one, marked by
financial, sexual, and emotional profligacy as the music icon grows
increasingly aware that stardom has required him to sacrifice a coherent
sense of self, not to mention a moral center. Everyone else in the
play—fan, journalist, father, bandmate, hanger-on—is more foil than
character, existing primarily to throw Paul’s dilemma into higher relief.
But Stephens captures a sordid, indulgent world with such depth and
precision—enhanced by Joe Schermoly’s glam-yet-sterile set and Brandon
Wardell’s shadowy lighting—that even the most discursive scenes (and there
are plenty across two intermissionless hours) ultimately provide something
to enrich and aggravate the imagination. All that’s required is the
patience to linger.

At the center is Joel Reitsma’s forcible turn as Paul, a convincingly
impossible concoction: childlike, malevolent, charming, repugnant,
pathetic, condemnable. Reitsma is a thrill to behold: exacting yet
impulsive, rigorous yet unrestrained. If this isn’t the performance of the
season, I can’t imagine what could be.   v