Neil Simon’s ‘Biloxi Blues’ Opens on Broadway
NEW YORK (AP) _ It’s been two years since Broadway theatergoers first met a gawky 14-year- old named Eugene Morris Jerome whose primary interests were writing, baseball and girls - not necessarily in that order.
Eugene was the narrator and focal point of Neil Simon’s autobiographical ″Brighton Beach Memoirs,″ a warm-hearted tribute to a lower middle-class Jewish family enduring the Depression in Brooklyn in 1937.
In his new play, ″Biloxi Blues,″ Simon has moved Eugene forward to 1943 and into an Army basic training camp in Biloxi, Miss. Eugene still has a passion for writing and females, but baseball has been replaced by his desire ″not to get killed.″
Geographically, ″Biloxi Blues,″ which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater, is a world away from ″Brighton Beach Memoirs,″ but the humor, warmth and astute perceptions of human nature permeating that first play are present here too. It’s a winner.
Simon, who was a writer on the old ″Sgt. Bilko″ television series, has a genuine affection for Army life. He surrounds his hero with a lively collection of raw recruits. There’s Wykowski, the bigoted bully; Carney who fancies himself a big band crooner; Selridge, a hot-tempered lunkhead; Hennesey, hiding a secret that will be his downfall, and most importantly, Epstein, an unathletic Jewish intellectual.
The raunchy Army humor is uproarious, especially in the play’s opening scene as the new soldiers travel by train to Mississippi. After arriving, the recruits are confronted by a bulldog of a sergeant who puts each of them in their place. The only one he can’t completely control is Epstein.
Simon crams an enormous amount of material into this coming of age play. Eugene loses his virginity during a visit to a sympathetic if business-like prostitute and then discovers real love when he meets a nice Catholic girl at a church dance.
But Simon is not only after laughs here. For the first time in his life, Eugene is forced to acknowledge anti-Semitism, the snide comments of the other recruits. He makes accommodations, trying to get along with the other soldiers. Epstein won’t and suffers from it.
Director Gene Saks, an old hand at getting the most out of Simon’s humor, has molded his youthful cast, led by Matthew Broderick as Eugene, into a tightly knit ensemble. Broderick, who also starred in ″Brighton Beach Memoirs,″ has developed into a fine comic actor with impeccable timing. Watch him as he waits for his meeting with the prostitute or dances awkwardly with the school girl, disarmingly played by Penelope Ann Miller.
Barry Miller displays the right amount of defiance as the recalcitrant Epstein, and his sardonic humor contrasts nicely with Broderick’s affability. Alan Ruck as Carney the crooner has a touching moment when he learns what Eugene really thinks of him. It’s one of the best scenes in the play. The other greenhorns - Matt Mulhern, Brian Tarantina and Geoffrey Sharp - could not be better. Only Bill Sadler as the sergeant seems tentative. His bluster is oddly muted.
David Mitchell’s sparse yet effective scenery, lighted by Tharon Musser, slides fluidly across the stage, a plus in a play that has 14 scene changes.
Apparently ″Biloxi Blues″ is the second part of a trilogy that eventually will follow Eugene back into civilian life. At the two-thirds mark, it is an impressive achievement. The laughs are there, but so is a seriousness behind the smiles.