BWW Review: BILOXI BLUES at Act II Playhouse- Nothing Blue about it!
When Tony Braithwaite set out to direct Biloxi Blues at Act II Playhouse, he had no idea what a tribute it would become. Legendary playwright, Neil Simon, passed away a week before opening. Something Braithwaite feared as Simon was upping in age, but with the days leading up to production and the Opening Night reception, he did this Bard justice. As did this impeccable cast and production team.
I've been honored to participate as an audience member at Act II several times now. However, I am not often one to jump at reviewing plays. I'm more well versed in musical theatre. However, Neil Simon has and will always be my favorite playwright. What drew me to this production was the casting of DJ Gleason in the semi-autobiographical Simon role of Eugene Morris Jerome. I had seen Gleason perform in a local production of Dog Sees God and was transfixed with his energy and focus toward the role. I had also heard that he has played this role previously in Brighton Beach Memoirs at Act II. Clearly this follow-up was apple picked just for Gleason. Rightfully so as shines and packs a punch with each scene and aside.
Although set in 1943, Biloxi Blues was first produced on Broadway in 1985. A coming of age tale for the character of Eugene on his journey through boot camp. It followed Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and precedes his Broadway Bound. As with many of Neil Simon's plays, it stands the test of time. True to the time of the story but resonates so very well in 2018.
Gleason, a mere 20 years old, was surrounded by some of Philly's brightest young union actors. I have seen several of these actors in productions around Philadelphia for years and can say without hesitation it was some of the finest acting I had seen from many of them. Zachary Chiero plays Roy Seldridge with class, humor, and leadership. I'm not sure if it was how his character was written or simply how Chiero commands the stage among his peers, but he is well on his way in this fine city. The character of Arnold Epstein, is often played for "the laugh". Here, Luke Bradt steals your heart repeatedly with each morsel of dialogue. Yes, you laugh, in true Simon fashion, but Bradt's performance shows just how much acting is a craft. He plays a closeted book worm of Jewish decent and is hit with layers of objectivity throughout this piece. Epstein is tormented by most of the squad, particularly from Joseph Wykowski provocatively played by newcomer Michael Rizzo. At the helm of the battalion, Andrew Criss brings humor, nuance, and a little PTSD to the character of Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey. You fear him, you love him, and you simply want to squeeze him with a hug. Rounding out this feisty crew of soldiers were played by Ryan Hagan as Don Carney and Chris Monaco as James Hennessey.
The femme fatales of this Simon classic are simply props to guide Eugene through this time in his life. He crosses paths with Madame Rowena (Heather Plank) and a catholic school girl Daisy (Anne Wechsler) who both are instrumental in his sexual identity and path onward. Speaking of props, I may have found my one itch with this production. The use of stage cigarettes always irks me, particularly with non-smokers. It's true to 1943 and I respect the decision to have them present, but like empty coffee cups on tv shows, I am quickly taken out of the action and focus on that annoyance. But seriously the most minute nitpicky thing did not detract from this remarkable production.
The industrial set made of three rotating units adorned in rust and army screen with decals paying homage to boot camp staples was cleverly designed by Adam Riggar. Janus Stefanowicz's costumes, although crippled to beige and bland as scripturally indicated, were beautifully tailored and well plotted to throughout the production. Every single piece of the male's costumes was seen including them being shed to their undergarments. Fully dressed uniformly in one scene or taking a piece off here and there for another helped dig into the tone of each scene while being smart. I do question the black dress shoes that the soldiers were wearing, but I attribute that to trouble locating 7 pairs of male combat shoes relevant to the period. I also wish attention was paid to 40s undergarments of women.
Braithwaite's direction was exceptional. Each scene created a snapshot. The staging, the movement of scene changes (shout out to Stage Management led by Patricia G. Sabato), and character development made for 2 hours of top-notch storytelling and magnificent theatre. Choosing to bring Biloxi Blues with DJ Gleason was a gift itself. Braithwaite's 30-year history as an educator to young artists shines through with this piece. I stayed for the Opening Night reception and he lovingly paid homage to every actor and technician involved in his production and ensuring that theatre is truly a collaborative art form. Act II is always about story-telling first, and Biloxi Blues hits all the right notes.
Biloxi Blues has extended its run through September 30th at Act II Playhouse in Amber, PA. Tickets and info: act2.org.