Last spring, Workshop Theatre audiences were introduced to the young Eugene Jerome, a horny, wisecracking, young teenager with a sensitive, intellectual side in Brighton Beach Memoirs. The alter-ego for playwright Neil Simon in his acclaimed and semi-autobiographical "Eugene trilogy" (also referred to as the "BB trilogy"), Eugene has now matured. Into a horny, wisecracking older teenager with a sensitive intellectual side. It's 1943, and he's in boot camp in Mississippi, experiencing Biloxi Blues. Director David Britt returns with a strong and age-appropriate young cast to track this next step of Eugene's journey. The tone is intentionally uneven, alternating between classic sketch comedy, sweet romance, and intense, character-driven drama, and the language and themes are at times as R-rated as you'd expect from the setting, but it's an amazingly honest memoir from Simon.
As Eugene, Jason Fernandes strikes the perfect tone as a young man in the process of finding himself. He still has an incredible gift for wordplay and funny observations about life, which, as in the earlier play, he often delivers to the audience directly, narrating the play's action which stops long enough for him to break the fourth wall. Yet Eugene now knows he wants to be writer; he's read all the great authors whom he hopes to emulate, and in his journal, his observations on life and human nature are fairly deep and insightful. Matthew Broderick played the role on Broadway to great acclaim just before filming Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Eugene is a wittier (if less mischievous) Ferris, if Ferris were a Jewish New Yorker. (In one of those "Awwww" moments, Broderick evidently brought cast mate Alan Ruck, who played Pvt. Carney on Broadway, along to Hollywood, where Ruck played Ferris's best friend Cameron.) Fernandes's bio indicates he is from Long Island and a freshman in college, so he already has the accent and age down pat. Resembling a young Adam Sandler, he successfully navigates the tricky jumps in tone from wisdom to naiveté to working the crowd like a Borscht Belt comedian.
Another standout in the cast is William Cavitt as Wykowski, ostensibly the gung-ho bully in Eugene's platoon. Unrecognizable from the dapper British gentleman he played in High Voltage's Dracula last fall, Cavitt also excels at revealing the humanity in what could have easily been a stereotypical stock character. Stephen Canada also has some good moments as sad sack Carney, and like Cavitt, does a great job with capturing the Northern accent. Canada and Fernandes have a surprisingly touching scene which shows how clearly, yet simultaneously subtly, Eugene is growing up. Seemingly insulting Carney as untrustworthy due to his constant vacillation, Eugene explains that they are both about to be in combat situations where decisiveness can save their lives, which is a very mature observation for a kid just a few weeks into basic training.
As local hooker Rowena, Jennifer Moody Sanchez is appropriately sexy and vampy, showing trace elements of compassion as she realizes that she will be Eugene's first. (As above, part of the honest nature of this play is that we find ourselves rooting for an innocent kid to lose his virginity to a hooker.) Her Southern accent drips with magnolia blossom honey, much like Park Overall's film portrayal, and almost seems too extreme, but we've all known ladies from that era who drawl with great pride, plus this is a memory play, and that's surely how all Southern accents sounded to both Simon and Eugene.
Winsome Haley Sprankle shines as Daisy, the adorable sort of red-headed Catholic school girl that we'd all go fight Hitler for in a heartbeat. Her scenes with Eugene are a great example of Simon's excellence with dialogue: Eugene, as the surrogate for the playwright, has the advantage of a middle-aged Tony-winner from the 1980's writing his snappy lines, while Daisy speaks like the heroine of a 1940's war movie. The way they flirt at a USO dance by bonding over literature is just incredibly well-written, and well-acted by these young performers: he is familiar with Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan and Henry James's Daisy Miller, she counters that she also likes Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and O'Neill's Anna Christie, and of course he points out that he likes writers named Eugene. That's the basis for true love right there, or what passes for it when millions of young men were shipping off to war, with no guarantee of return. Fernandes, Cavitt, Canada, Sanchez and Sprankle are also uniformly strong with projection.
A pivotal subplot involves misfit Pvt. Epstein (Colby Gambrell) and the harsh discipline of Drill Sgt. Toomey (Lee Williams.) Eugene acknowledges Epstein's criticism that he is too much of an observer, recording his life experiences with a writer's skill, but rarely taking the lead. Both characters suffer from the anti-Semitism of the era, but Eugene finds a way to blend in via his wit and social skills, which is a recurring theme, and source of guilt, for many Jewish authors. Eugene rarely jokes in his diary entries, and writes that he admires Epstein, but suspects that he is a homosexual, which bothers him - and it bothers him that it bothers him. Which is about as eloquent and honest a line as I can imagine.
Toomey goes through the expected tyrannical procedures familiar to us from a hundred movies, and from the war stories of our fathers and grandfathers, but again, Simon shows his dramatic gift via tiny nuances of characterization: no matter how harsh Toomey is on his men, the one time he will come to someone's defense is if anyone within the unit is anything but supportive of his fellow soldiers. And sure enough, halfway through the play, no one is complaining about the physical rigors of boot camp any more, and the aggressive barracks-room banter has acquired a sort of rough camaraderie and acceptance. Epstein is often called the central character of the piece, but Gambrell rushes a lot of his lines, and more often cedes focus to Fernandes. Williams likewise has got the right anger and aggression for Toomey, but I never quite accepted him as a tough non-com, although he'd make a terrific rigid captain or major. That said, he is quite convincing in an unexpectedly tender moment when the platoon loses one of their own, calling the youth "son" as only a leader can. Williams has had a baptism by fire in his first two years of local theatre, tackling challenging roles in works by Henley and Albee, and I look forward to more from him in the future. I also suspect that a few run-throughs with a live audience by the time you read this will have given Gambrell the opportunity to even out a little of his delivery.
As above, several scenes are Simon's chance to lend his considerable comedic talent to vintage skits about fresh recruits bantering with their drill sergeant, and GI's with a weekend pass at a whorehouse. Other scenes, however, are genuinely moving drama, with Simon demonstrating that his career could have gone in the direction of his idols like Fitzgerald, had comic genius not been his meal ticket to fame. Simon is of course famous for his comedies, but we need to remember that he has more Tony and Oscar nominations than any other writer in the world. He has won the Pulitzer, and four Tony awards, including one for this very play, which beat out Tracers, As Is, and new works from August Wilson and David Rabe, for best play in 1985. The juxtaposition of jokes and raw emotion may be a little unsettling for those looking for The Odd Couple, as will the language and frank sexuality, but the pay-off is worth it.
A couple of random notes: I commend the male cast for fully committing to their roles - all sport military buzz-cuts, significantly helping the show's authenticity, and all manage to do some intense push-ups on stage while not dropping a single line. Also, full disclosure, I may not be entirely impartial here, because a lifetime ago I played Eugene's older brother in the third play in this trilogy, and when Eugene declares that there must be at least 52 sexual positions, since he once saw a pack of dirty playing cards, I instantly thought "Well, his brother had to have given him those!"
Biloxi Blues runs through Sat. March 29th at Workshop Theatre; call the box office at (803) 799-6551, or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com/BiloxiBlues.html for ticket information.
~ August Krickel