The Act II Playhouse production of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” takes on special relevance, opening as it did on Friday, days after Simon’s death at 91. The timing, of course, is simple coincidence. And the production — smooth and with a tone that makes Simon’s trademark light scenes bounce and his heavier ones resound — is a sweet memorial, even though it never set out to be.
“Biloxi Blues,” got Simon one of his three Tonys, this one for best play in 1985. Some of “Biloxi Blues” is Simon at his comic purest, with characters we recognize instinctively because Simon draws them as stereotypes, and because their reactions to much in life are comical. That sort of comedy doesn’t always feel current; the last time I saw “Barefoot in the Park,” the play was tired (and the unhelpful production, tiresome). Manhattan, the home for so many Simon characters, has changed a lot since his urbane comedies wowed Broadway in the ’70s and ’80s, and so has our idea of situation comedy – a form that grew largely on the foundation of Simon’s work.
“Biloxi Blues” is among his three later plays, all semi-autobiographical, that won Simon critical acclaim plus the hearts, in addition to the laughter, of playgoers. (The other two are “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound.) Simon tells “Biloxi Blues” through the character Eugene, his dramatized alter-ego, a Jewish 18-year-old raised in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. He’s being shipped to basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi, in wartime 1943. Eugene wants to be a writer and to that end, he constantly jots what he’s thinking into a notebook – here, a standard black-and-white composition notebook that will bring him trouble down the road.
He’s played at Act II by DJ Gleason, who brings out Eugene’s naivete while making him a little impish and a lot adorable, which sounds like the way Simon probably felt about the character and by extension, himself. (Gleason has played the character Eugene before, in “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” also at Act II.) What I like best about Gleason isn’t his narrative style – he comes in and out of the action to comment directly to us and to move the plot along – but the natural way he fits vulnerably into scenes with his platoon of newbies, with a USO-type sweetie (Anne Wechsler), and an understanding woman of the night (Heather Plank).
Gleason’s role is the lead, but Simon gives all the guys in the platoon a good shot, and director Tony Braithwaite, who runs Act II, offers up a version that makes “Biloxi Blues” a conduit for notable ensemble acting. This group of soldiers is played by Michael Rizzo, as a brawny, bigoted tough-guy given to deliver easy put-downs; Luke Bradt as an intellectual Jewish New Yorker who despises the military and his plight there; Ryan Hagan as an indecisive guy who’d like to be a singer; Zachary J. Chiero as a classic follower; and Chris Monaco portraying a generally quiet fellow who confronts bigoted trash talk by saying he’s part Irish, part black.
For my money, the best acting in the play comes from Andrew Criss. He has the best-written part, and he runs with it. He plays the demeaning, threatening, industrial-strength authoritarian who is the drill sergeant – and although the character is written (like so many of Simon’s characters) without nuance, Criss gives us insights into the way this man thinks. He does this not mainly with the material Simon has provided, but with body language, expressive eyes and an altogether menacing energy. When he’s on stage, nothing else counts.
I can quibble with a peripheral aspect of Braithwaite’s production – the accents, which might have been better shaped by a dialect coach. But Adam Riggar’s simple scenery and John Stovicek’s subtle sound design do the trick. Braithwaite – himself an actor in nine different Neil Simon plays (one of them, two productions) and now the director of this one, never met Simon. But he clearly understands what Neil Simon was – and remains – all about.