Curtain Rises: Neil Simon ‘Biloxi Blues’ favorite at Pennsylvania Playhouse
Theatergoers never seem to get enough of Neil Simon plays.
Simon’s combination of humor and humanity might be best represented by his semi-autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy.” The second of the series, “Biloxi Blues,” opens Jan. 31 and continues weekends through Feb. 16 at The Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem.
Simon, who died in 2018, had already written most of his best-known works when he began to write more thoughtful plays based on his own life. He began to infuse more drama and a wider range of emotions in his plays than in his gag-filled earlier hits like “The Odd Couple” and “The Sunshine Boys.”
“Biloxi Blues” relates the time that Eugene Morris Jerome (a stand-in for Simon) enters the Army during World War II and is sent to Biloxi, Miss., for basic training.
“I love Neil Simon,” says Pennsylvania Playhouse “Biloxi Blues” director Gary Boyer. “He has a lot of things that require some great comedic timing.”
Boyer is particularly happy about the challenge of “Biloxi Blues”:
“It is a mix. It has Simon’s snappy comedy, but it also has poignant moments. In ‘Biloxi,’ he diverges from his usual rat-a-tat humor to include quiet moments of reflection.”
Boyer has acted in 25 or 30 plays at the Playhouse. This is the seventh play he has directed there. He was an assistant stage manager for “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” He played Vinnie in the Playhouse’s 2004 production of “The Odd Couple” and Val in Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”
The actors in the Playhouse “Biloxi Blues” production are new and veterans to the Playhouse.
Jack Miller, who plays Eugene, also portrayed him in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
“Brighton Beach” is the first of the Eugene trilogy, chronicling Eugene’s (Simon’s) Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Boyer hopes that the Playhouse will choose to do the third play, the lesser-seen “Broadway Bound,” in an upcoming season.
Unlike the other two plays in the series, Jerome is more of a narrator in “Biloxi Blues.” In the opening scene, Jerome describes a number of colorful characters riding with him on the train to Biloxi.
The play centers on the conflict between Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (Brian Keller) and Private Arnold Epstein (Cody Jackson). Drill sergeants are known for being extremely tough and Toomey is no exception.
Unlike the other soldiers, Epstein refuses to submit to Toomey, which escalates the drama. In the meantime, Eugene works toward three goals of his Army service: to become a writer, not get killed, and lose his virginity. Along with the humor, serious topics are included in the play, including anti-Semitism, homophobia, and sexuality.
“Biloxi Blues” received a Tony Award for Best Play in 1985, the first time Simon received that honor (he received a Tony for Best Playwright for “The Odd Couple” in 1965).
In 1988, “Biloxi Blues” was made into a film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Matthew Broderick, who played Jerome in the Broadway play, and Christopher Walken.
Says Boyer, “All six of the soldiers are played by actors in their twenties, and only two people in the cast are over the age of 25.”
Boyer would recommend the play to younger people interested in seeing the Pennsylvania Playhouse production: “These are amazing actors, and these are your peers.”
“Biloxi Blues,” 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31-Feb. 16, The Pennsylvania Playhouse. Tickets: Tickets: Pennsylvania Playhouse Box Office, 390 Illick’s Mill Road, Bethlehem; paplayhouse.org; 610-865-6665.