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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Biloxi Blues
Desert Stages Theatre

Also see Gil's review of Disney in Concert Magical Music from the Movies and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess


back row: Jaime Pla, Nick Nobs, Bailey Vogt, Zack Pepe; front row: Todd Michael Isaac, Rick Davis and Ryan Toro
Playwright Neil Simon delivered a string of hit plays from the mid 1960s into the 1990s. While many touched upon experiences in his life, his "Eugene Trilogy" of plays that began with 1983's Brighton Beach Memoirs and ended with 1986's Broadway Bound was the most personal, with the central character of Eugene Jerome, his exploits and his family squarely centered on Simon's growing up in New York City in the 1930s. The second play in the Trilogy, 1985's Biloxi Blues was actually the only one of the three not set in New York, focusing instead on a few months in Eugene's life he spends in Biloxi, Mississippi, for basic training during World War II. With a cast of relatively young but talented actors, the Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre is presenting a well-acted and skillfully directed production of the play that brings out the dramatic parts of this smartly written comedy.

It's 1943 and 20-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome has just left his home in Brooklyn, New York, bound for Biloxi, Mississippi, on a train with a group of recently drafted recruits headed for basic training in the United States Army. It's a miserable, balmy summer in swampy Biloxi and making matters worse is their hard-headed platoon leader Sergeant Toomey who torments the men in order to instill discipline in them. Toomey also has a habit of picking out scapegoats among the recruits for the others to hate. Eugene, who has decided he wants to become a writer, keeps a journal of his thoughts and observations of his fellow recruits and does his best to avoid any confrontations with Toomey. He also hopes he can lose his virginity and fall in love that summer, hopefully with the same girl. With a diverse group of characters, including the soft spoken, intelligent Arnold Epstein and the irrational Toomey, Simon has written an interesting piece that focuses on Eugene's struggles away from home and Epstein's power struggle with Toomey set against the stories and exploits of the other recruits. With Eugene serving as the narrator of the piece, Simon shows us what happens while young recruits await deployment. Mixed amongst the many laughs of the piece are plenty of realistic moments of the period that touch upon anti-Semitism, homophobia, ethnic and racial prejudice, and the use of violence in military discipline.

As Eugene, Ryan Toro delivers a multi-layered performance, skillfully handling the character's serious dealings with Epstein, his humorous encounter with Rowena, the no-nonsense, married prostitute who only works weekends, and his romantic conversations with the sweet-natured Catholic schoolgirl Daisy. While Toro is engaging in the part, he does come across as just slightly older than most of the other recruits which makes him seem just a bit too experienced and not completely the fish out of water that Eugene claims to be. Fortunately, this only detracts a small bit from his performance, as his encounter with Rowena is nave and humorous and his wide expressive eyes and line delivery nicely serve as innocent, fresh and droll commentary on the exploits of his fellow recruits. Toro also works well with the rest of the cast and in the end, even with my slight negative comment, he still manages to deliver a solid portrayal of this young man and a memorable performance.

Todd Michael Isaac is superb as Epstein, providing a three-dimensional character and effortlessly portraying this intelligent, hard-headed man who continues to defy the "Army way", even if he ends up degraded and humiliated in the process. The way Isaac shows us how Epstein fights to maintain his dignity, yet doesn't shy away from his confrontations with Toomey, or the other recruits, makes him compassionate and earns our, and Eugene's respect.

Just as good is Rick Davis' portrayal of Toomey. Davis is often frightening and extremely consistent in his delivery of this over-bearing Sergeant from the South. In what could easily become a caricature, he wisely never makes Toomey's relentless way of training cross the line into being comical. In the second act Davis is also very realistic as a drunken Toomey, and also manages to convey the inner conflict that Toomey feels during that scene, delivering a remarkable, and even moving, performance.

The other recruits are depicted by Bailey Vogt, Jaime Pla, Nick Nobs and Zack Pepe, mainly playing broadly stereotypical characters, yet each manages to make his part faithful. Nobs is quite effective as the indecisive Carney and Vogt is perfect as the dumb, bigoted Wykowski. Pla and Pepe, in somewhat lesser parts, are just as good, with Pla perfectly cocky as Selridge and Pepe giving a nice turn as the soft-spoken, sensitive Hennessey who is always trying to keep the peace in the barracks. The fact that all four actors are in their late teens or early twenties, yet deliver well-honed portrayals, makes the performances that much more noteworthy.

Devon Prokopek is genuine as Daisy, the innocent schoolgirl Eugene falls for, perfectly giving her a sweet natured, yet tentative disposition. Virginia Olivieri as Rowena, the prostitute whom Eugene and his fellow recruits visit, is all business and no-nonsense; she sees what she is doing as just a job.

Director Mark-Alan C. Clemente easily balances the comedic and dramatic moments, and gets nicely defined performances from his cast. While the play is centered on the story of Eugene, it is really Epstein and Toomey who get the meatiest scenes, and Clemente manages to make their scenes explode with raw emotion. He has also skillfully directed his actors in their delivery of the comic lines to wait a beat for the laughs to subside before continuing speaking, while still coming across in a natural way. While the play is set over a short period of only a few months, Clemente also manages to get his actors to exhibit the growth their characters experience and the lessons they learn.

Set designer Paul Filan has found a clever way to portray the various scenes, with fold-down bunks and lockers that double as benches, though some of the scene changes are a little noisier than they should be. Costume designer Tamara Treat delivers period perfect khaki Army fatigues as well as outfits for Daisy and Rowena that are appropriately simple and seductive. Brian Morphew's lighting design is modest yet works well to help establish the time of day and the various locations, bright and hot for the day scenes, dark and moody for the ones set at night, with an effective use of key spot lights for Eugene's transition narrative scenes that are directed to the audience while the cast is changing the set behind him.

Part humorous coming of age story, part drama, Biloxi Blues, while not one of Simon's most produced plays, is still a worthwhile endeavor. Full of smart writing and well-defined colorful characters who display the fear and anxiety of young recruits waiting to be shipped off to war, it is a play also full of nostalgia and humor set amongst the disturbing issues that war time brings. While part of a trilogy, the play easily stands alone and you don't need to have seen the others in order to enjoy its rewards. The Desert Stages Theatre production has a top-notch capable cast and precise direction that results in a polished production that humorously and dramatically brings these interesting characters to life.

The Desert Stages production of Biloxi Blues runs through August 10th, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at www.DesertStages.org or by phone at (480) 483-1664

Director: Mark-Alan C. Clemente
Assistant Director: Lindsay Newhard
Stage Manager: Leslie A. Smith
Set Designer: Paul Filan
Lighting Designer: Brian Morphew
Sound and Lights: Chris Caracciolo
Costume Designer: Tamara Treat
Prop Master: Mitch Etter
Hair/Makeup Designer: Virginia Olivieri

Cast:
Eugene: Ryan Toro
Epstein: Todd Michael Isaac
Toomey: Rick Davis
Wykowski: Bailey Vogt
Selridge: Jaime Pla
Carney: Nick Nobs
Hennessey: Zack Pepe
Daisy: Devon Prokopek
Rowena: Virginia Olivieri


Photo credit: Wade Moran/Desert Stages Theatre

--Gil Benbrook


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