By Karen Isaacs
A word association: Neil Simon. Many people will think of The Odd Couple and then associate Simon with lots of laughs and one-liners. A good comedy.
If that’s your view of Simon, Biloxi Blues now at Ivoryton Playhouse through May 14 will surprise you.
Yes, there are some humorous situations and some one-liners, but the tone of this play is more serious. It’s part of the Eugene Trilogy that Simon wrote based loosely on his early life. Brighton Beach Memoirs told a family drama of growing up in Brighton Beach in the pre-WWII era. The third play, Broadway Bound tells of his attempts to work in comedy on TV. This middle play, is about his experiences in 1943 in basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Eugene Jerome, the Simon character, is a big city young man who aspires to being a writer; he is keeping a journal. But he is also naïve; he has little experience outside his neighborhood and family; he’s still a virgin and seems to have lived a sheltered life.
The play begins with Eugene and four others traveling by train to basic training in Biloxi. These are all East coast guys. Soon they arrive and quickly meet Sargent Toomey – a longtime army noncom with battle scars to prove it. He is loud, profane and hard driving. He quickly sizes them up as out of shape. They need to be “broken” and put together as a unit that will die for each other. While the others immediately accept that Toomey is to be obeyed, one of them, Arnold Epstein seems unaware. He is the “Jewish intellectual” from Queens, who has decided that he will refuse to allow Toomey and the Army to make him conform. Of course, he is the one that is most attacked by Toomey.
As basic training progresses, another GI, Hennessey joins the group. They finally get a weekend pass and Eugene visits the local prostitute to lose his virginity. He is nervous and anxious and still naïve. He is amazed that she is married (to an Army man) and does this on the weekends; he is astounded that when he visits her again, she doesn’t remember him.
Among the other things that happen is the discovery that one recruit is homosexual, Eugene falls in love for the first time at a USO dance; the young lady is Catholic.
The play ends with them going off in different direction; Eugene tells us what happens to each of them. As to be expected, there is some tragedy and some heroism.
The characters are stereotypical. Wykowski is a not-very-bright, tough guy from Bridgeport; Arnold Epstein is the intellectual and the non-conformist; Carney is an aspiring singer; Selridge is the jokester; and Hennesey is the quiet one.
It is interesting in researching this play to see how it was viewed when it was first produced (there was also a film version). The emphasis was on the laughs. Eugene though the narrator (and played by Matthew Broderick) was not considered the central character; that was Arnold Epstein, who constantly challenges the system and has the lines that most question how Eugene reacts.
The Ivoryton production seems to shift the focus to Eugene, played by Zal Owen. He projects the correct nerdy, naïve attitude for the 19-year-old Eugene. Conor M. Hamill has the muscular, “dumb jock” look and persona as Wykowski. Alex Silberblatt as Epstein at times fades into the background. We can admire him and his ethical/moral stances, but our eyes don’t gravitate to him. The two women – Andee Buccheri as the sweet Daisy and Mora O’Sullivan as the prostitute Rowena – project their contrasting roles in the play: the experienced “older” woman and the naïve young girl.
Director Sasha Brätt has done a good job with keeping the pace moving. The humor has been subjugated to the more serious elements of the play. Glenn David Bassett’s set emulates Quonset buildings, the barracks and the other locations.
In the how times have changed category, it is interesting to note that Ivoryton felt it necessary to include in the program the following: “Offensive language, including racial and ethnic insults, is used in the play.” It refers to the use of swear words as well as insults referring to various ethnicities.
For tickets visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-767-7318.