by Clark Groome
How appropriate it is that Ambler’s Act II Playhouse’s production of a Neil Simon play opened just a week after Simon, America’s most prolific and produced playwright, died Aug. 26 at age 91. It’s also appropriate that this is not just any Neil Simon play but “Biloxi Blues,” the second of his three-play autobiographical “BB” series. (The other two are “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound.”
Simon is known for his comedies, most notably, perhaps, “Come Blow Your Horn,” “Plaza Suite,” “California Suite” and arguably his most popular play, “The Odd Couple.”
When he started his autobiographical trilogy in 1983, many critics and audience members didn’t know what to make of this darker, more serious but still funny Neil Simon. The result was that at least initially, people would always expect a joke, of which he was the master, and end up laughing inappropriately at something that was definitely not funny.
“Biloxi Blues,” which is on the boards in Ambler through Sept. 30, tells of Eugene Morris Jerome (the Simon surrogate, played here by the appealing DJ Gleason) as he enters the army in 1943, early in World War II. The Brighton Beach, N.Y., native is sent to Biloxi, Mississippi, for training.
He tells us as he sets out on his military service that he has three goals: to become a writer, to lose his virginity and to stay alive. He does all three. He also introduces us to several interesting characters with whom he is serving and the first young woman (Daisy Hannigan, played winningly by Anne Weschler) with whom he falls in love (after losing his virginity to a professional in a very funny but touching scene).
The Act II production, directed by Tony Braithwaite, gets off to a slow and predictable start. Its early scenes emphasize the comedy and one-liners. This is in part a problem inherent in the play, but some of those early scenes should be tougher and more moving.
As it progresses, it improves significantly. The result is a play that effectively addresses some really sensitive issues, including the fear of what’s to come after basic training, one recruit’s homosexuality, the bigotry shown towards Jews and the often mean-spirited but ultimately necessary training that turns these callow civilians into soldiers.
The cast is generally strong. Gleason’s Eugene is spot-on, as are Wechsler’s Daisy and Andrew Criss’ Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey, the man who made his charges’ lives a living hell. Luke Bradt is a somewhat understated Arnold Epstein, perhaps the play’s most interesting character. Zachary Chiero, Ryan Hagan, Chris Monaco, Heather Plank and Michael Rizzo are all quite good in supporting roles.
Scenic designer Adam Riggar creates a set that creatively and simply captures the various places in Biloxi where the play’s action takes place. It is all beautifully lit by James Leitner. Janus Stefanowicz, clearly assisted by the U.S. Army, dresses the various characters convincingly. John Stovicek’s choice of music before the curtain and during the play is exactly right for the early 1940s.
Neil Simon likely will be remembered mostly for his comedies and the books he wrote for the musicals “Little Me” and “Sweet Charity.” But he should also be remembered for the depth, sensitivity and humor of his three impressive autobiographical dramas.
The Act II production is a worthy rendering of a very important play. Producing it now shows us just how large the legacy we were left when Neil Simon died.
For tickets, call 215-654-0200 or visit wwwact2.org