Regional Reviews: St. Louis
I've seen a fair amount of work by "hack directors," but Sam Hack is definitely not one of them. He always provides deft, detailed, naturalistic direction, and youthful Patrick Blanner is outstanding as the Simon-like character Eugene Morris Jerome. Thanks to both of them, we get a new revelation about Neil Simon's gallows humor. His young enlisted men confront horrific moments at regular intervals in this second play of a personal onstage trilogy, from 1985certifiably funny potty humor gives way to ruthless observation, and more and more exquisite levels of anguish. And suddenly, the writer of The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park has given his own humor a reason for being, outside of New York City. In Biloxi Blues, Simon finally falls in with his own martyred heritage of people who braved thousands of years of slavery, pogroms and holocaust. Whether that unification of personal style and religious heritage sparked the necessary magic, or if it was something else, the original production on Broadway did win four Tony Awards, including Best Play.
Jeff Struckhoff is strangely endearing as the intimidating drill sergeant (but don't rely on memy own father was one of those, and you probably don't get sentimental over a guy who screams in your face like I do). But it's important to note, from a theatrical standpoint, that the show's climactic scene has a somewhat gimmicky overtone, with Struckhoff's Sergeant Toomey waving a .45 in the face of an enlisted man. This seems exceedingly unlikely, both militarily and theatrically. Sequentially, the play's high-stress realism of sexual humiliation, most powerfully seen in a visit to a whorehouse, and later the nausea-inducing dread of a prison sentence for gay soldiers each finally give way to just "a scene with a gun" that's supposed to hold our attention in the last twenty minutes (it's Simon's version of an "11 o'clock number"). Through good directing and good acting, though, the production transcends its deadly physical prop and gives us a glimpse of a man about to fall off the edge of the only thing he knows. It's art in spite of itself.
Actor Michael Bouchard is on the wrong end of that handgun, and yet abstractedly delightful as Epstein, the boy who's read the entire third floor of the New York City Public Library. He can use all that learning to find an entirely different context for every incident, a talent that saves him. Mr. Bouchard upholds a large percentage of the show with a light touch, balanced by Epstein's knowledge of the sheer weight of human civilization.
There is genuine pain, or at least brutish bewilderment, for each young man on stage. Jack Lehmann is excellent as the anti-semitic Wykowski, and Jeremy Schnelt makes us wince over his character's humiliations as Carney. Greg Savel bursts in like an explorer from another land, as defiant Hennesey, and Sam Guillemette is great as the dumbest guy in the platoon, Selridge.
The actresses don't come on till act two, but are worth the wait. Annie Valuska plays the prostitute whose languid, steady worldliness lays the groundwork for the heights of Mr. Blanner's virginal panic as Eugene. Later, Amanda Crawford weaves a romantic spell as the good girl he cannot forget. Yes, Simon's only two women here are a whore and a virgin. But Biloxi Blues is the story of a very young writer, after all, who is unexpectedly marked for greatness. "Unaccountably marked," you might have said, until you've seen this remarkable show.
Clayton Community Theatre has had a long, chilly relationship with set design and set building. It's far from the Fabulous Fox Theatre in terms of physical grandeur, but just as weighty in its own way. For this group, everything depends on which shows they choose, and the play selection process works perfectly here, in conjunction with the minimalistic sets.
Biloxi Blues, through May 12, 2019, at Clayton Community Theatre, South Campus of Washington University, 6501 Clayton Road. St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.placeseveryone.org.