by Rita Charleston
Without wishing to sound immodest, Andrew Criss, 49, believes he was just the right choice for the role of hard-drinking, platoon leader Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey, a drill sergeant who both instructs and abuses the men under his command in Neil Simon’s classic more-or-less autobiographical dramatic comedy, “Biloxi Blues,” now playing at Act II Playhouse in Ambler through Sept. 30.
“I think I’m a lot like Toomey in many ways,” Criss told us last week. “I’m an intense guy as well as a physically imposing guy. I’m a powerful and muscular man, and I used to compete as a bodybuilder. I have a strong personality that serves me well on stage. And even though I might seem like a kind of threatening character, I like to think of myself as a nice guy.”
Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play, “Biloxi Blues” was inspired by Simon’s own life and features a young soldier named Eugene Morris Jerome (Simon) who goes off to boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi, and learns all about sex, love and war. This is the second of Simon’s self-examining plays following “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which Act II produced in 2016. Preceding “Broadway Bound” in what has come to be known as the “Eugene trilogy,” this is the only play of the three in which Eugene is not the central character.
Instead, as Eugene arrives in Biloxi for basic training during World War II, he meets a diverse assortment of solders, including the gentle and intelligent Arnold Epstein, who becomes the central figure in this play, which explores Epstein’s struggle for power with Sergeant Toomey.
Criss, who lived in several places because his father’s occupation as an aerospace engineer forced the family to move around quite a bit, said his childhood was spent mainly in Ohio and Texas. Later, he began his studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “I started out majoring in architecture, then quickly switched to set design,” he said.
“Secretly I really wanted to be an actor but thought that was unattainable, although I did take a couple of acting courses while at the university and loved them. But because I wasn’t an acting major, I wasn’t allowed to be in any productions. But I did manage to find a small theater scene in Austin and started getting roles in various productions.”
Criss graduated from college in 1992, moved to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and began a career as a successful portrait and landscape artist. “But every time I heard abut someone’s experience in the theater, I got a little pang. And when Chad, my partner, moved to Philadelphia to complete his degree at Tyler and then went on to grad school, I realized what I was missing. Oh, I was making a good living as an artist and had done so for many years, but an artist’s work is solo work, and I began missing being around other creative people.”
By moving to Philadelphia about five years ago, Criss hoped to renew his interest in theater. And it worked. After a rather long gap, Criss says he’s learned a lot over the years. “I think I’m a little wiser, a little more patient. I’ve learned to rethink my ideas and feel more like a grown-up now. In fact, I’m the oldest person in this play and think I can now look and act the part convincingly. So far, this role has been fun, and the only thing I have to be careful of is making sure Toomey is not one-dimensional. He’s much more complex than that, and I’m having a great time finding other layers in him.”
Now a full-time actor living in Kensington, Criss has appeared in many local theaters, happy to share ideas and collaborate with so many interesting and creative people. “I know now that’s what was missing in my life as a painter, although I still paint and have a show about once a year. I have to make sure I keep the flame going, and the pilot light is always on.”
Act II Playhouse is at 56 E. Butler Ave. in Ambler. More information at 215-654-0200 or www.act2.org