"Biloxi Blues," Neil Simon's 1985 Tony winner, realistically and comically showcases what soldiers have known for years: Basic training is more of a shock to recruits than their later army experiences because new soldiers are completely unprepared for the unrelenting discipline and harassment.
“Biloxi Blues,” Neil Simon’s 1985 Tony winner, realistically and comically showcases what soldiers have known for years: Basic training is more of a shock to recruits than their later army experiences because new soldiers are completely unprepared for the unrelenting discipline and harassment. Simon depicts these trials through the eyes of his fictional counterpart Eugene (Daniel Sauli), and the Pasadena Playhouse production provides all the witty one-liners we expect, along with stirringly emotional revelations. Unfortunately, a few colorless, uninspired performances throw the story off balance and prevent the production from maintaining consistent dramatic power.
The show opens in 1943, as five young men meet and clash on a train bound for Biloxi, Miss. These include Eugene Jerome, an aspiring writer; Arnold Epstein (Evan Neuman), a quietly rebellious intellectual; Joseph Wykowski (Jonathan Wade Drahos), a beefy, loud-mouthed anti-Semite; Roy Selridge (Ben Tolpin), a dense, small-town hick; and Don Carney (Robert Della Cerra), a dreamer who sings happily and badly.
Expectations of a loving Jimmy Stewart-type sergeant are shattered when the nervous quintet are faced with Merwin Toomey (Josh Clark), a bully who pits them against each other, demands endless pushups, force-feeds them inedible food and defines himself as “the cruelest, craziest, most sadistic son of a bitch you ever saw.” Four of the five cooperate, but idealistic Epstein refuses to be treated like an animal and declares war against Toomey and the system.
This plot is the show’s most absorbing aspect, and it simultaneously enhances and undermines the production’s basic structure. Epstein is a brilliantly conceived character, and Neuman portrays him with remarkable humor and intensity. One of Epstein’s admirable acts is to assume blame for someone else’s theft so others in his platoon can have their 48-hour pass.
Unfortunately, the ostensible hero, Eugene, is pallid. Epstein accuses him of “standing around watching. You have to take sides, make a contribution to the fight.” Eugene is an observer who writes in a diary, remains “neutral, like Switzerland,” and concentrates on his goals: to be an author, stay alive and lose his virginity. Since he never sticks his neck out from start to finish, his hero status is a matter of what we’re told, rather than what we see. To compensate, the role needs an actor of magnetism and charisma. Sauli lacks edge, remaining amiably middle of the road.
Clark’s Sergeant Toomey conveys the obsessiveness and harshness of his character, without becoming as terrifying as he should. There are moments when we witness inner pain, but his impact fades when the script drops him for half of the second act.
By contrast, Drahos is a vital, passionately physical presence as the insensitive Wykowski. Tolpin’s Selridge illuminates the decency behind an obtuse, uneducated mindset, and Della Cerra, as Don Carney, is excellent in a key sequence when Eugene tells him he can’t be counted on. Finn Carter brings warm, bawdy humor to her role as a sympathetic prostitute. Nicole Nieth, playing Eugene’s first love, is sincere but stays a stereotype rather than a human being.
Director Paul Lazarus keeps the pace crisp, smoothly juggling humor and pathos. He also stages a forceful climactic confrontation between Epstein and Toomey, which dramatizes the difference between blind obedience and questioning of orders.
D. Martyn Bookwalter’s scenic design gives an accurate and flavorful picture of army barracks, and J. Kent Insay’s lighting is always in the right place to highlight individual characters and conflicts.