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