Saturday, May 6, 2017

You're in the Army Now

Biloxi Blues -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru May 14

Zal Owen as Eugene. Photo by Anne Hudson

To say that Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues marches down familiar paths is an understatement. Anyone familiar with the plethora of novels and films about young men training to be soldiers in WWII, Korea or Viet Nam -- think Sands of Iwo Jima, Take the High Ground, or Full Metal Jacket, to name only three -- knows the drill. Men from different parts of the country and of disparate personalities and ethnicities are thrown together and through discipline and arduous training (sometimes harsh) shed their civilian individualities and become soldiers…and a unit. Given the number of men and women who have gone though the process, the formula, if nothing else, can’t help but evoke memories. Thus, Ivoryton Playhouse’s production, given the age skew of its audience, will inevitably please, especially since the ensemble is, by and large, spot on.

The middle offering of what came to be known as the Eugene Trilogy, Simon’s 1985 play was made into a movie in 1988 starring Matthew Broderick as Eugene. At Ivoryton, Zal Owen, under the steady direction of Sasha Bratt, takes on the role of the young recruit and aspiring writer, and does so with a great deal of style, including a Nu Yawk accent that is consistent throughout the evening.

The play opens in 1943 with five recruits riding on a train from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to a training camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. Wykowski (Conor M. Hamill), Carney (Ethan Kirschbaum), Hennesey (George Meyer), and Epstein (Alec Silberblatt), along with Eugene, grouse, brag and occasionally fart. They soon meet their drill sergeant, Toomey (Mike Mihm), a hard-as-nails vet who believes 200 push-ups can’t fail to turn civilians into soldiers. Thus, the process begins, most of it consisting of Toomey browbeating the recruits. Under the pressure, the young men reveal their insecurities and prejudices, many of which Eugene records in his “memoirs,” a notebook he keeps in his barracks trunk.

The play is a series of set-pieces including the men’s introduction to Army chow in the form of SOS (shit on a shingle), grueling marches and the concept that if one recruit screws up the entire unit has to pay the price, a theory that often leads to bullying amongst the recruits as they try to “shape up” the sad sack. In this case, it’s Epstein, a cerebral sort who happens to be Jewish (as is Eugene) and is inclined to view life through the lens of Talmudic argument. He and Toomey butt heads early on and the conflict between the two will fuel much of the evening and be the focus of the play’s climax.

Then there’s the inevitable “soldiers on a two-day pass” scenes, which feature Moira O’Sullivan as Rowena, a semi-pro (she only does it on weekends) who takes on the eager recruits one at a time, the last one being Eugene, who achieves one of his stated goals (“I did it!”). His second goal is to fall in love. Enter Andee Buccheri as Daisy, a Catholic school girl who meets Eugene at a USO dance. If there’s one false note in the production it’s here, for Miss Daisy just seems a bit too sweet-as-pie, demure to the point of often not being able to be heard clearly. My only other quibble is, having been under the tutelage of several drill sergeants and dealt with many NCOs, I question whether Toomey should (or would) consistently square his corners and do precise about faces on every exit. In any event, Eugene falls in love with Daisy and it is sealed with a bittersweet kiss.

Given the sub-genre, the play is filled with stereotypes, but this fine cast brings them to life, no more so than Silberblatt as Epstein. He creates a dweeb who is also a wise-ass and from his agonies over having to go to the bathroom (“It’s a latrine, dipshit!”) to his final confrontation with a somewhat inebriated Toomey, Silberblatt gives us a multi-faceted character that consistently holds the audience’s attention.

All of this is played out on a remarkably flexible single set created by Glenn David Bassett that allows for the train ride, the barracks confrontations, the trip to the bordello, the USO dance and the climactic scene in Toomey’s room with a minimum of effort, trusting the audience to fill in the blanks.

Clocking in at just over two hours, with a single intermission, Biloxi Blues is an entertaining stroll down memory lane, especially for those who have served in the armed forces. It gently deals with serious issues (homophobia and anti-Semitism, among others) while providing enough laughs to lighten the evening. The show runs through May 14. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

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