By Amanda VanNostrand.
When artists pass into the next life, their work often takes on a new, somewhat greater value than it had previously. Act II Playhouse is currently host to the show Biloxi Blues, which was written by the late Neil Simon, who recently passed away on August 26, 2018. As witnesses to great events in history pass away more and more frequently with time that inevitably steals them away, preserving stories of the past becomes more and more urgent. All theatregoers can appreciate this show, as it is the testament of a man who was alive during World War II and had taken the time to turn his experiences into a semi-autobiographical work, that gives those of us who have the privilege of still residing on this earth a glimpse into a time that is so important and somehow extremely relevant to what we have to live through, and learn from today. Neil Simon is living on through Act II’s production, and Biloxi Blues is most certainly the show to see right now. It is running until September 30 th and any lover of theater, history, or Neil Simon himself should absolutely purchase themselves a ticket.
Biloxi Blues is the story of the fictitious character Eugene Morris Jerome (DJ Gleason). It is 1943 and Eugene has recently been drafted into the US Army. Eugene is witness to the men (and a couple of women!) who reside nearby as they train, and are trained, for war. Eugene is an aspiring writer and keeps detailed logs of the goings-on in the lives of his fellow recruits while they are on the train, in their bunks, and on weekend leaves. Relationships between Sergeants and soldiers, and soldiers and soldiers are examined, and Eugene leads the audience through each story that he closely witnesses during his time in training. This story is telling: Eugene witnesses much as the aspiring soldiers are instructed and challenged to become their best, most competent selves as war looms ahead. Secrets are revealed and true inner workings are disclosed, whether willingly or not.
Biloxi Blues won a Tony Award for Best Play (1985) and one viewing of this show will make the reasons clear. This show is deep, telling, and digs into characters in intimate, entertaining, and often comedic ways. Eugene’s perspective is honest and clear, and the men he lives with during the setting of the show are seemingly real, authentic men. In regard to our writer Neil Simon, Chris Monaco, the actor playing James Hennesey reported, “What strikes me most about Neil is his unfailing devotion to maintaining the truth of his characters. He writes human beings who exist not to entertain, but to tell true stories littered with doubt and self-deprecation, fears and flaws and guffaws.” From beginning to end the audience will be enchanted with each of Simon’s characters and his storyline, feeling alongside with each character the anguish and pain inside.
Upon walking into the theater, music from the era of World War II brings audience members into the mood and mindset of the past. The set (Adam Riggar) contains patriotic symbols representing that time as well, together with the music setting up the historicity of the show. The set remains simple from here on out, consisting of 5-6 large pieces that portray the background, beds, and trains which give just the right idea of where and when each character resides. Though simple, the set is perfect: it coincides nicely with the costumes (Janus Stefanoqicz) and props (John Wendling) of that time period. The look and feel of this show certainly add to its intrigue.
Of course, the actors are what make this show what it is. In addition to the supreme direction by Tony Braithwaite (a staple of Act II Playhouse, whose name most audience members will search for in their playbill wondering just what he did to contribute to the show, if he did not act in it?), the actors were what made it. The show consisted mostly of men, a fact which can be forgiven considering the content and time period. The men who played these parts all played them exceptionally well, earning the sympathy and concern from the audience that each character certainly deserved. Of note is DJ Gleason, who played Eugene, our narrator; small and slightly awkward, he was a great choice for this role. He brought a sweet, endearing quality to his character that was both necessary and fitting. Luke Bradt also did well, playing the Jewish character Arnold Epstein. The coinciding timidity and strength that he brought to Epstein was mysterious and entirely appropriate. Next to Andrew Criss, who played Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey, Epstein’s role as one of the lead men was top notch. Criss is perhaps the one and only competitor: his acting (as both a sober and a drunk Sergeant) was great. He is believable and exactly the right amount of dramatic to play his part as a seemingly tough yet entirely amazing Sergeant. He was a perfect choice for this role, making it difficult to imagine being played out by anyone else. The two women of the show proved great too: Heather Plank, playing the prostitute Rowena was substantial in her role, and Anne Wechsler (Daisy Hannigan) brought the innocence and sweetness to the role that would be necessary. All actors did a great job and worked together as one believable troupe.
Biloxi Blues is somehow comedic as it presents a serious reality that was at that time anything but comedic. It seems that Neil Simon poured his heart out into this show, bringing the realities of anti-Semitism, war, coming-of-age, friendship, prejudices and stereotypes, gender expectations, and more, to the table in one complete, entertaining package. Act II does a phenomenal job of showcasing this production, and it is well worth it to carve out the time to view.