Winner of the 1985 Tony Award for Best Drama, Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” is a rare case of a sequel that actually improves upon its antecedent (in this case, 1983’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs”).
The middle chapter in Simon’s autobiographical Eugene Morris Jerome trilogy (“Broadway Bound” completed the cycle a year later), “Biloxi” is perhaps best known today for the 1988 film adaptation starring Matthew Broderick as aspiring scribe Eugene and Christopher Walken as psycho drill instructor Sgt. Toomey.
Though innumerable plays, books and movies have chronicled the rigors of basic training, Simon’s witty detailing of one young man’s World War II boot-camp adventure remains one of the most purely entertaining. And the serviceable production of “Biloxi” that opened Friday night at the New Castle Playhouse makes a decent enough case for the work’s enduring appeal.
Directed by Paul Angelucci, this “Biloxi” gets many things right: strikingly apt set design; skillful deployment of nostalgic period music; brisk pacing. Helping Angelucci’s cause is mostly spot-on casting, particularly the estimable Ben Solomon who previously played Eugene in a 2008 NCP production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
Solomon — so terrific as Albert in last month’s Michael Cavalier-directed “Bye Bye Birdie” — seems to understand that his primary job is to make the audience Eugene’s trusty confidante. Since Eugene is as much observer as participant, it’s easy for the character to recede into the background and/or be upstaged by the show’s more colorfully drawn supporting roles (including Toomey and rebellious brainiac Arnold Epstein). To his credit, Solomon largely avoids that potential thesping pitfall.
The play opens in 1943 where Brooklyn native Eugene is one of five Army recruits on a train headed for Biloxi, Miss. Eugene’s goals are pretty clear-cut: not to get killed; become a writer; lose his virginity; and fall in love. The other soldiers have less clearly delineated aspirations. Wykowski (Dave Leslie) is a potty-mouthed, muscle-bound racist; Selridge (Joshua Antoon) is a redneck doofus; Carney (Coy Price) is a myopic dreamer whose lack of talent doesn’t prevent him from breaking into song at the most inappropriate moments; and Epstein (Christian Heasley) is the Jewish intellectual destined to butt heads with Sgt. Toomey.
With the exception of the bordello where pragmatic working girl Rowena (Renee Cuerden) helps relieve Eugene of his virginity, and a USO dance sequence in which Eugene meets first love Daisy (Corina Dougherty), the play’s action is restricted to the Biloxi barracks.
As Toomey, the dependably strong Alan McCreary gives an intelligent reading of his character, even if he seems a bit too rational and level-headed for the hair-triggered sergeant. Missing is a palpable whiff of danger the role would seem to demand. Antoon, Leslie, Mark McConnell Jr. (as Hennesey, another soldier in Eugene’s platoon) and Price all do nice work. Cuerden and the wonderful Dougherty add considerable depth to their stereotypical roles of virgin and whore.
Less satisfying is Heasley’s Epstein. The Westminster College junior never convinced me that he was a New Yorker (Heasley doesn’t even attempt an accent) or even Jewish.
Next season, Solomon will get the chance to complete the Eugene trifecta when the New Castle Playhouse presents Simon’s “Broadway Bound.” Hopefully that production will be as well-crafted as this one.