Stageworks' Biloxi Blues passes muster

Ricky Cona and Co. deliver a great take on Neil Simon’s best play.

Biloxi Blues may very well be Neil Simon’s best play.

Along with the inevitable wisecracks, it offers a fairly serious look at first love, first sex, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and the development of a writer.

It also introduces a character — Private Arnold Epstein — whose idiosyncratic personal war against army discipline is worthy of a play of its own. The current production at Stageworks, sharply directed by Karla Hartley, is in most ways superb, and should be seen by every local theater-lover — especially those who, like myself, have had mainly doubts about Simon’s oeuvre. This show is funny, poignant, suspenseful, and, at worst, a little corny. It proves that within Simple Simon is another playwright altogether — one who’s conscious of the dangerous, potentially tragic world that sitcoms ignore. If every Simon play were like this one, he’d figure quite differently in the public imagination.

What we’re presented in the somewhat episodic structure of Biloxi is scenes from the basic training of six soldiers in the time of World War II. Conducting us through these vignettes is Eugene Morris Jerome, Simon’s stand-in, who speaks directly to the audience about the terrors of boot camp, and who endures those hardships with five other privates. Their common enemy is Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey, one of those pitiless, withering disciplinarians whom we’ve come to know from a hundred other plays and movies. But Simon is too clever to let the sergeant dominate his comedy; once we’re clued in to his unreasonable demands, we’re allowed to look in other directions too: at Private Wykowski’s casual bigotry, at 1940s attitudes toward homosexuality, at Eugene’s first sex experience in a brothel, at his fellow soldiers’ indignation at his journal-writing.

And we make the acquaintance of Arnold Epstein, perfectly portrayed by Vincent Stalba as a bookish intellectual who in his masochistic way refuses to become the unquestioning soldier that the army wants him to be. Epstein’s rebellion is the most original thing in Biloxi Blues — we watch with concern as he becomes a kind of nonviolent resister dedicated to outsmarting the military even if it means hours of punishment eating slop or cleaning latrines. Lying in bed reading while his fellow privates are commiserating over their latest indignities, Epstein becomes a hero of noncompliance, somewhat like Herman Melville’s Bartleby. And a final confrontation with Sgt. Toomey, late in Act Two, tests his mutiny and, at the same time, justifies it.

But Stalba’s Epstein is only one of the many excellent portrayals in this fine production. As narrator Eugene, Ricky Cona is a charmingly naïve guide to army life, whether addressing us directly with his high-pitched nasal whine or allowing us to watch as he clumsily loses his virginity to a vastly amused prostitute (the endearing Heather Krueger).

Late in the comedy, Eugene falls in love with a girl at a USO dance, and watching this duet is, for all its Norman Rockwellish sentimentality, a delightful recess from all the scenes dominated by foul-mouthed, foul-thinking men. The innocent female, Daisy Hannigan, is played lovingly by Katie Castonguay, whom I’ve seen several times on stage but who is at her don’t-change-a-thing best in this quietly disarming role. Effective in an entirely different manner is Michael McGreevy, whose Sgt. Toomey may have many forerunners on stage and screen but who still manages to convince us that all his seeming cruelty is designed to turn these recruits into survivors, and not casualties, of war.

Top performances are also turned in by Eugene’s other barracks-mates, played by Landon Green, Daniel Rosenstrauch, Kaleb Lankford and Austin Parker. Frank Chavez’s barracks set is elementary but persuasive, and a nice touch is a raised conveyor belt against the back wall, bringing us performers and furniture that don’t belong in the barracks. All the army costumes by Mike & Kathy Buck Designs are correct to the button.

Neil Simon made his name with meaningless romps like The Odd Couple, and I, for one, have found it easy to discount his work as a whole. But Biloxi Blues is stubbornly impressive and I have to admit, I admire it. It’s wise and it’s poignant — and I think anyone who gives it a chance will feel rewarded.

Local Kid Makes Good. South Tampa teen Jon Viktor Corpuz will perform on Broadway May 22, in the revival of Stephen Schwartz’s musical Godspell. The 15-year-old actor was one of 10 kids (out of 500) selected to perform a special encore number after the Tuesday evening performance. Of course, this brings up a tough question: What’s the next rung up the ladder?

Don’t forget us, Broadway Jon.

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