Biloxi Blues @ Profile Theatre

When Profile Theatre announced its 2008-2010 season, I thought Jane Unger’s choice of Neil Simon as the featured playwright would turn out to be a marketing mistake. (I'm presuming readers know that Profile has the unique mission of focusing on a single playwright through an entire season, “celebrating the playwright's contribution to live theater”).

Before this year’s author was announced, Profile mailed a teaser postcard listing playwrights under consideration: Sam Shepard? Samuel Beckett? Moliere? My memory is hazy about the list, but I recall liking most of the other prospects more than Neil Simon. With most theater companies around the country trying to figure out how to attract a new, younger audience (a topic Culture Shock has covered before), picking an old-school writer such as Simon seemed retrograde. It certainly isn’t a sexy choice. Of course, Simon is America’s most successful playwright for a reason, so what do I know?

More than a week ago, I attended Profile's opening night performance of Simon's Biloxi Blues (1985) expecting to be mildly entertained. Instead, I enjoyed an outstanding production of a well-crafted script. No big fireworks, but a well-told story. I should have given more credit to Neil Simon, as well as to Pat Patton, a veteran stage director. After close to four hours immersed in the multimedia extravaganza of Apollo the previous night (reviewed here), I was primed for straightforward theater that moved at a crisp pace.

Biloxi Blues is a simple coming-of-age story set in a boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi during WWII. It sits in the middle of a semi-autobiographical trilogy that starts with Brighton Beach Memoirs and ends with Broadway Bound. (Many critics have declared Biloxi Blues to be the best of the three). The opening night audience chuckled and guffawed through the whole thing, but it’s more than a two hour laugh-fest as it sensitively tackles serious issues such as homophobia and anti-Semitism.

What really stands out in this production--and what I've been meaning to comment about for more than a week-- is the uniform quality of the acting ensemble. There wasn’t a single mediocre performance to be found from the group of mostly young actors.

At the reception following the performance, Jane Unger told me they’d auditioned a lot of actors to find just the right mix of young men who could embody the play’s distinct characters – from the intellectual misfit, Arnold Epstein (played by Matthew Sa) to the tough-guy Pole, Joseph Wykowski (Mario Calgano)--a manly stud who is alleged to sport a perpetual pole. The two women roles are played perfectly by Brooke Fletcher (as the prostitute, Rowena) and Brittany Burch (as first-love, Daisy Hannigan). In early scenes, Todd Hermanson’s portrayal of the tough drill sergeant borders on stereotype (written that way by Simon). Later, he nails the sergeant’s gentle response to the young soldier Hennessey (played by high school senior Derek Hermann) who is being arrested on charges of sodomy. He is also superbly menacing in a drunken encounter that is at the climax of the play.

This is one of those rare productions in which EVERY performance is great. I recommend that any casting directors looking to fill roles straddling the transition age from teenage to adulthood go see this cast in action. (For instance, if you’re developing a play called The Mentoring of Beau Breedlove). I hope this cast ends up being nominated for "best ensemble" in this year's Drammy Awards. (As long as I’m suggesting nominees, let me also include set design by Tal Sanders).

p.s. The accompanying photo is not from Biloxi Blues. It's from the Phil Silvers Show (originally titled You'll Never Get Rich)--a mid-century (1955-59) work of television sit-com brilliance starring one of the funniest comedians of the age. The 1996 Steve Martin film adaptation of the series sucked.

The picture to the right is also not from Profile's production of Biloxi Blues. Rather, it is a portrait of the inimitable and debonair Top Cat (known as "T.C." to his friends) from the eponymous Hanna Barbera series of the mid-60s. That cartoon series was modeled on The Phil Silvers Show, with Top Cat's voice being a loose imitation of Phil Silvers' (which was also imitated for the cartoon character Hokey Wolf).

But I digress.

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