After the gilding given to the legend of the “greatest generation” by the likes of Tom Brokaw, one would be forgiven for thinking that our military victory in World War II was due to the unquestioning obedience of patriotic volunteers marching in lockstep to the enlightened orders of their Solomonic superiors. Thankfully, there are writers like Neil Simon to remind us that the oxymoronic nature of “military intelligence” is not a Bush-era innovation.
Biloxi Blues is the Tony Award-winning middle chapter of Simon’s semi-autobiographical BB trilogy, sandwiched between Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound. In the current production at Theatre Downtown, Adam DelMedico is Simon’s stand-in, Eugene Morris Jerome, an aspiring author and reluctant recruit enduring basic training in the marshes of Mississippi. His stereotypical comrades appear to be plucked out of the war film-casting pool: meatheaded Polack Wykowski (Matthew Davidson), effete intellectual Epstein (Eddy Coppens), confidence-challenged crooner Carney (Scott Poole). But each reveals hidden depths under the strain of the soul-deadening drills supervised by the psychotic Sgt. Toomey (Joe Rochel).
Through March 15
at Theatre Downtown
$15 - $18
Eugene just wants to lose his virginity, fall in love and make it home unscathed – in that order, he hopes. He accomplishes the first goal in a fumbling deflowerment courtesy of a professional (Sarah Lockard); the second with a chaste Catholic cutie (Pamela Stone). But focusing on his final objective occludes his moral agency, as Epstein, his Jewish Jiminy Cricket, often annoyingly observes. Toomey’s sadistic soldiering, bracketed by barracks brawls and boorish bonding, brings to the forefront issues of racism and homophobia that are still relevant today.
First-time director Stephen Pugh does a solid job of keeping the action flowing, especially in the testosterone-heavy first act, and his avoidance of unwieldy set changes was appreciated. The few fumbles find their origin in the script – the female-centric second act drags; Eugene is passive or absent at crucial dramatic moments – and are flaws that Simon fixed when penning the 1988 film adaptation.
DelMedico makes a genial Eugene, quipping cleverly and betraying his bemusement at Army absurdities by pulling a wry “WTF?” face. Rochel can’t erase memories of world-class wacko Christopher Walken in the film role of Toomey, but the authentic Army vet invests Eugene’s noncommissioned nemesis with a gravely Michael Rooker-esque gravitas. Best of all is Coppens as dyspeptic Talmudist Arnold Epstein, “the worst soldier in World War II, and that included the deserters.” His infuriating insight and maddening moral certainty provide a compelling contrast to the protagonist’s paralysis; between this performance and last year’s Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, Coppens is the go-to guy for nebbishness.
It’s easy to critique this show and its Simon siblings as overly familiar chestnuts, but in this case familiarity breeds comfort, making these blues a perfect fit for Theatre Downtown.