All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Finding the difference between stereotype and human behavior and reactions that fit a familiar mold catapults Samantha Bellomo’s production of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” from being an amiable service comedy about the rigors of basic training to textured, elegiac memory play that sweetly, and engrossingly, chronicles a watershed time in a young man’s life.
“Biloxi Blues” in the second play in an autobiographical trilogy wrote in the 1980s. Hitherto, I have always preferred its bookends, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound,” to Simon’s recollections of his experiences as a World War II Army recruit at a sweltering Mississippi base. “Biloxi Blues” seemed more formulaic, more Simon’s take on a familiar subject, than a play with the nostalgia and affection on its trilogy mates.
Bellomo’s production showed me more facets of “Biloxi Blues.” The director seemed to open up scenes, extending them and taking them at a more-relaxed-than-usual pace so that each passage operated as its own self-contained vignette that could almost be done as a one-act play. Particularly the opening sequence, the train ride from New Jersey to Mississippi that introduces Simon’s alter ego, Eugene Jerome’s, platoon, Eugene’s first encounter with a prostitute, and Eugene meeting his first love, Daisy, at a USO dance.
The last two scenes are often played as comme il faut, comic and/or sentimental throwaways that change the location of Simon’s play but not its pace or overall intensity. Bellomo has these segments played with care. They register in a human way, as awkward but authentic rites of passage. They help define all that “Biloxi Blues” is and add to an engaging portrait of one person’s experience made general by being integral parts on an evolving, involving story that warms and amuses you.
That’s the best part of Bellomo’s production. It satisfies dramatically and artistically without sacrificing a jot of Simon’s comedy. Jokes and other set-ups play better, and more effectively, because they spring from human situations and seem a part of a character’s overall persona. Simon builds to rimshot punch lines, but in the hands of Bellomo’s excellent cast, sarcastic responses and other bits seem natural and organic rather than programmed or forced.
Ironically, and surprisingly, the scenes that founders a bit in Bellomo’s staging is one I usually find the strongest, the episode when the drill sergeant brandishes a gun on one of his men and coerces that man, the weakest link in the platoon, to disarm him and take him to the command post for arrest. Because all else in Bellomo’s production came across as so real, fresh, and humorous, this set piece registers as artificial, as a contrived bit of playwriting that jerry-rigs a dramatic high spot instead of sincerely creating one. A passage that usually stands out for its power falters for being more designed than spontaneous. It strikes a wrong note, not because it’s badly written or badly played — Pete Pryor and Jordan Geiger are terrific in the scene — but because the easy flowing, realistic tone at People’s Light marks the bit as exceptional rather than smoothly connected to Simon’s play.
Pryor, marvelous throughout, and Geiger, a master at timing, make the scene taut and suspenseful, but for once, it doesn’t seem to fit. Bellomo and company have been plumbing the drama inherent in the ordinary, and in her production, Simon’s most toughly composed scene seems unnecessary and gratuitous. A sequence involving the discovery of a homosexual soldier in Jerome’s barracks, also strikes as extraneous rather than integral.
Again, these passages do not mar Bellomo’s production. They just stand out for being more self- consciously composed than lifelike.
The only other time I tensed in fear was at the top of the show, the recitation of the first line. James Michael Lambert, as Jerome, sounded as if he going to affect the whiny, nasal rhythms of Matthew Broderick, who originated the part. Broderick was fine, but he is Broderick. I was nervous that Lambert was going to take his cue from an actor rather than the character. After about four sentences, when Lambert’s voice settled into a more natural and personal timbre, and lights were up on the train car carrying the recruits to Mississippi, things regulated to the realistic tone Bellomo would stress throughout. Lambert’s Jerome blended into being one of the guys, as it should be, and the actor fit into the ensemble quite nicely.
A fine ensemble it is too. Lambert is boyish and likeable. He brings out Jerome’s naivety and knack for telling a story. Like many central figures, Jerome does not dominate the story, More or equally consequential things happen to his platoon mates. Jerome anchors the piece and provides its point of view. It’s from his wartime diary that “Biloxi Blues” is narrated. Lambert is a sheltered Jerome who is maturing, expanding his outlook, and studying the humankind he meets along the way. He has an authorial acceptance of the real, and Jerome even talks about the writer’s penchant for standing aside and observing a scene, even a crucial scene, while being a part of it.
Lambert is best as a young man becoming acquainted with a world and with characters far different from the ones he knew in Brighton Beach. To his and Bellomo’s credit, the actor takes his time and reveals more social skills and more ability to be one of a group as “Biloxi Blues” unfolds.
Pete Pryor defines the blend of the stereotypical and the real as Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey, the trainer assigned to convert some middle-Atlantic smartasses from adolescents to men capable of cooperating and surviving the all too authentic dangers of combat.
There’s a touch of humor in Pryor’s approach. You see the observational, perceptive glint in his eye. You notice how attentive he is and how he can turn a minute blink of an eye or hand gesture from one of his soldiers into a reason to pounce and impart a disciplinary penalty or assert some lesson that might help his “maggots” get through a war.
Pryor is most effective at keeping Toomey on a human scale. This is a man who will use his senses of observation and humor to instruct his troops and amuse the People’s Light audience. He is not a figurehead or an icon. Nor he is a comic buffoon. He’s a no-nonsense soldier who knows his job and whose cutting remarks and ridiculing ripostes are part of Toomey’s makeup. In Simon’s and Pryor’s hands, Toomey is a natural comedian, somewhat like Simon at his best, who can find and exploit the absurdity, drollness, or hilarity of the situation and use it to his talented advantage.
Pryor’s Toomey is energetic and in your face. He may tease his men into submission and set up tests meant to reveal and hone their character, but he is also frank and honest. He explains his techniques and levels with the men when it’s important. Pryor allows Toomey to be a complete character rather than a device in a military play. The actor does honor actual drill sergeants who have lives and have purpose beyond their training attitudes. His is a smart, detailed, witty performance that ranks among Pryor’s best, which is saying a lot.
While Simon touches on the military, he veers more towards the personal. He is less interested in seeing his characters as soldiers than as men, who like Jerome, are bound to mature according to their individual experiences and proclivities.
Three members of the platoon are already grown in significant ways. Joseph Wykowski and Roy Selridge are guys from the street. They comes from a rougher, more working class environment than Jerome. Their masculinity and their rugged, quick-to-react approach to the world are defined before they hit basic training. At 18, both of these guys are sexually experienced and have fended for themselves, without parental attention or guidance, in ways Jerome, whose mother packs six days worth of brisket sandwiches to sustain him en route to Mississippi, could barely understand without exercising his writer’s imagination.
Wykowski and Selridge are the platoon members most likely to ride guys about smelly feet and smellier farts. Their humor is crude but funny in the way of tougher guys who know how to get laughs by making fun of others or by explaining what they will do the next time they’re near a woman. Wykowski is especially libidinous and notoriously well endowed. He is fond of masturbation and is heard at night saying using battle language, such as “loading torpedo number four and preparing to fire” when on the brink of ejaculating. He is also the most tormenting of the more innocent members of the platoon — Jerome, Arnold Epstein, a rebellious intellectual whose individuality is fodder for much of Simon’s humor and pathos, and Don Carney, a kid who is not as sheltered or as self-contained as Jerome or Epstein, but who is of the milder guy-next-door category, the kind of person cast as the innocuous best friend who can be content working at any job and will make a comfortable living while never becoming remarkable or having the insight of Jerome, the moxie of Epstein, or the comradely barroom ease of Selridge or Wykowski.
The third mature member of the platoon is James Hennessey who is not given much to do but is always competent, self-contained, and personable. Hennessey exists less to complete the platoon that to give Simon a foil for one of his ideas. Given the almost anonymous nature of Hennessey’s character, Luke Brahdt, plays him well and conveys the normality and ability to easily cooperate that Hennessey represents.
Bellomo’s direction makes you care about each of the men, and scenes play in a way that keeps you interested in their different personalities, and even in their ambitions. You certainly know Eugene wants to be a writer, and Don Carney wants to be a pop crooner (in spite of having minimal talent and a pitch problem, at least as played by Ben Harter-Murphy).
The women in “Biloxi Blues” are often treated as functional and are dismissed. Bellomo took a warmer, more dimensional tack in showing Eugene’s blushes with first sex — He signs up for another five-dollar go. — and first infatuation.
Juliana Zinkel is superb as Rowena, a married woman who helps the family expenses by turning tricks in a Biloxi cathouse frequented by soldiers on leave. Like everyone else in Bellomo’s production, Zinkel aims for the real. Her Rowena is businesslike but friendly. Her room is cheaply romantic, but no more than the average setting on ABC’s “The Bachelor,” and Rowena is neither tawdry, cold, smothering, or mothering. She’s just an everyday woman, prettier than most who provides sex for a fee. No big deal.
Zinkel and Lambert are so natural in their scene that even Simonized gags referring to Aqua Velva and Wykowski’s prowess get their laughs from a conversational, rather than a forced, approach. Lambert doesn’t overplay Eugene’s virginity and hesitation to proceed. Zinkel doesn’t get annoyed or bored. She patiently guides Jerome into manhood, never being too soothing, incredulous, or demanding. This initiation scene becomes sweet and recall that rite of passage that is the most awkward for men with some sensitivity and even has moment for guys, like Wykowski, who approach their first woman full steam ahead. The scene between Lambert and Zinkel works so well, you get a bittersweet pang when Eugene mentions in a later scene that on a subsequent visit, Rowena did not recognize him. Business, after all, is business.
Clare Mahoney adds to her skein of small but meticulously lovely performances as Daisy, a Catholic schoolgirl who volunteers with her classmates to entertain soldiers, in a more wholesome way than Rowena, at a USO center. Eugene finds Daisy the first person he can talk to openly since he’s been in Mississippi. She reads and can share his literary references, she is neither forward nor demure, and she has a range of conversation and ease of expression that creates an immediate rapport. One can see the connection between Lambert and Mahoney and believe that under more ideal conditions, including religious differences — Eugene is Jewish. — infatuation could grow into romance and thrive as love.
Jon Mulhearn delivers a breakthrough performance as Wykowski, whose rough talk and ways belie Mulhearn’s pretty looks.
Simon hints throughout early scenes of “Biloxi Blues” there’s more to Wykowski that meets the eye, and Mulhearn plays this braggart among soldiers and teases among men, one who wears crudeness as a kind of badge, with character that suggests Wykowski’s courage and reliability and that shows there’s a brain behind all that muscle and bravado.
Ben Harter-Murphy conveys the wavering quality of Carney, who can’t make up his mind easily. He also captures the ordinariness of the character. Carney could spend his life selling shoes or used cars. He can be an office manager or some other functionary. He’s the kind of person you’d expect to use expressions like “gosh” or “sheese” and be shocked when he hears someone is having an affair or doesn’t return telephone calls. He is not a leader but is content to be one of the herd.
Joseph Michael O’Brien is good at playing Roy Selridge, he rates a compliment for something that would normally sound damning. He blends into the scenery. O’Brien plays Selridge, who has the street smarts of Wykowski but the nerve of some of the more reserved characters, in a seamless fashion that allows him to contribute to the action and make sure Selridge is well represented in fulfilling his role in Jerome’s story, but who never takes over a scene unduly. O’Brien is the member of this ensemble who makes his character count but doesn’t dominate or command center stage. In this “Biloxi Blues,” that is praiseworthy and shows an actor with the perspective to do his job and take his place professionally but to back off to give more central characters the stage.
Jordan Geiger has the pivotal role of Arnold Epstein and plays it with wit and commitment. In most productions of “Biloxi Blues,” Epstein becomes a focal character. He is a dedicated maverick who does not buy into the regimen of military life, even when Toomey or Jerome explain it to him logically, and who truly resents the condescending method the Army, represented by Toomey, employs in turning an individual into a member of a unit.
Like Mulhearn, Geiger is handsomer than Epstein is usually cast. There’s a fineness to his features, and a physical delicacy that makes him more than a nerdy nudge of an intellectual. Geiger’s Epstein demands to be reckoned with. In his subtly obstinate way, he will not give in, back down, or recognize, even though he sees it, military necessity.
Epstein is the ultimate rebel, and to Geiger’s credit, he doesn’t play him with haughtiness or belligerence, just with a clear attitude that he is not going to participate the Army style of training — because he finds it degrading and illogical –and not submerge his personality to someone else’s, especially Sgt. Toomey’s.
Once again, Bellomo has opted for a different view of Simon’s play. Arnold’s story may been given more stage time than anyone else’s, but the character is not given dramatic emphasis. Bellomo succeeds where the Army fails. Epstein gets his stage time, but he is just another member of the platoon, another story and personality to be considered among several others. Geiger, by always maintaining an air of aloofness and a sense of being above everything around him, shows Epstein to be as much of an observer as Jerome but much less of a conformist, His Epstein can be as irritating a pain in the posterior as he is usually is, but Geiger also gives the character a Talmudic-like curiosity and wisdom that serves Simon’s play and Bellomo’s production by providing extra texture.
James F. Pyne’s collection of bunk beds and foot lockers serves well to create the barracks setting while being flexible enough to turn into a railroad car and dance hall. His choice for Rowena’s boudoir was especially good, cheap in its purply, pillowy way but inviting in its feminine feel, reddish lighting, and atmosphere of intimacy. I liked that Pyne did not make Rowena’s lair classy but kept is from being tacky. Comfort and mood rule the premises, and that is perfect for Bellomo’s concept.
Marla J. Jurglanis was creative with the range of non-military costumes, especially for Rowena and Daisy. I wondered at time why so many of the soldier slept in their entire uniform instead of taking off at least their shirts. The choice did not make sense, especially if one considers the humid heat of summertime Biloxi.
“Biloxi Blues” runs through Sunday, May 24 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401, just north of Route 30) in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday. Tickets range from $77 to $60 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org.