BWW Review: BILOXI BLUES REDUX at New Theatre Restaurant
Veteran character actor Peter Scolari stars in a featured role in the New Theatre production of Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues." Unfortunately, Scorlari was neither present (or accounted for) on the evening I happened to see the production last week.
Peter Scolari has enjoyed a long and varied career in film, on TV, and on the stage. Audiences know him best from his co-starring role with Tom Hanks in the 1980s TV series "Bosom Buddies," later as the Yuppie TV producer Michael Harris on "Newhart," and then an Emmy Award winning turn on "Girls" in 2016.
Since Scolari's character as Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey plays a pivotal part in setting the scene and the tone of the show, the producers asked me to give "Biloxi Blues" a second viewing and share some additional feedback.
"Biloxi Blues" recounts the partly comic and partly tragic tale of Eugene Morris Jerome who is Neil Simon's avatar for himself, as he survived boot camp (Basic Combat Training) with a squad of variously challenged misfits near the end of World War II.
As anyone who ever graduated "Basic Training" knows, your entire world becomes invested in the guy in charge of you; that is your Drill Sergeant. For Eugene and his buddies, their D.I. was Sergeant Merwin Toomey (Scolari).
"Biloxi Blues" does create some personal resonance. This time I brought with me a fresh set of eyes in the person of a former military policeman of about my same vintage. My friend enjoyed himself. I viewed the show from the odd perspective of having been both an Army trainee and an Army trainer during my own national service. It was easy to identify with this funny and nostalgic chapter in Eugene's life.
I'm not sure if Peter Scolari actually served, but he has embodied Sgt. Toomey in a way that conveys the humor, the toughness, and the personal damage sustained by these guys. Scolari's Sgt. Toomey is never nasty in service to any kind of sadism, but rather to the higher objective of sharing learned survival skills. He conjures my own D.I. SSG Samuel Sessions recalled suddenly after almost fifty years in the rear view mirror.
It is said that good acting is reacting. Scolari's multi-layered performance and his ability to skip a beat and shift his level of intensity benefits all those who share the stage with him. The beat taken gives the audience the moment they need to click in on the dozens of jokes that Neil Simon has stuffed into this nice (if a little dated) piece of stage writing. Every other line of dialog has a word gag attached.
The narrator of the piece is Eugene; here played by Jeremy Greenbaum. He occupies the unusual position of being both a character in the play and someone who breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. Greenbaum is good, but Greenbaum with Scolari is better. All the actors in this cast seem to feed off this experienced pro.
"Biloxi Blues" goes from a good show with slick production values to something considerably more special with Peter Scolari anchoring this dependable cast.
Biloxi Blues continues at the New Theatre through April 21.
Photos courtesy of New Theatre Restaurant and Roy Inman.