Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Young Brooklyn native Eugene Morris Jerome (DJ Gleason) and his fellow new recruits are in for ten weeks of basic training in sweltering Biloxi, Mississippi, before they ship out to the front lines of World War II. Drill Sergeant Toomey (Andrew Criss) is a psychopath, the food is inedible, and inside the barracks tempers are wearing thin. There is a lot of dodgy banter between soldiers and everything is funnier viewed through the lens of Jerome's earnest naivete, but the escalating conflict between hard ass Sgt. Toomey and stubborn intellectual Arnold Epstein (Luke Bradt) is what really drives the play.
Gleason leads the talented ensemble with ample charm and impeccable comic timing. Zachary Chiero, as Roy Selridge, breaths fresh humor into even the corniest one liners; Michael Rizzo's Joseph Wykowski is delightfully menacing; while Chris Monaco conveys quiet depth as James Hennesey. Under Braithwaite's direction the cast fully capitalizes on the wealth of humor in Biloxi Blues and the laughs just keep coming.
The more serious side of Simon's work does not fare as well. Many of the darker momentsfrom Sergeant Toomey's rants to Wykowski's dirty jokesare tepid and seem to be geared for easy humor rather than maximum impact. Playing down the grittier aspects of army life may make for a more comfortable comedy, but it also diminishes the play's unique power. Luke Bradt is miscast as Arnold Epstein, the physically weak but intellectually stoic member of the platoon. Bradt devotes a lot of energy affecting the physical and vocal traits of his character, but ends up sounding like a whiny Jerry Lewis. It's funny, but the character is robbed of his gravitas and Bradt is so preoccupied with maintaining this affect that his ability to interact on stage is clearly limited. This is especially frustrating in the penultimate scene, with Criss, between Toomey and Epstein; Criss gives a powerful performance but it feels like he is acting against a brick wall.
Biloxi Blues, through September 30, 2018, at the Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, Ambler PA. Tickets are available online at act2.org or by phone at 215-654-0200.