Act II Playhouse offers us a loving version of Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues (extended through Sept. 30) in the shadow of the author's death on Aug. 26 at age 91. This play probably hit harder in 1985 than it can today. Since then, we have had many more trenchant looks at the military, anti-Semitism, first-time sex/love, the outsider in a regimented world. But for a Neil Simon play, Biloxi has range.
This is the middle play of Simon's kind-of-autobiographical "Eugene trilogy" of the 1980s, made up of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound. Well-scrubbed audience favorite DJ Gleason returns as Eugene Morris Jerome, now on his way to basic training in Biloxi, Miss. Adam Riggar's sets are clever and shift easily from train to basic training to 48-hour leave in a Mississippi backwater.
In Biloxi, Simon takes Eugene, the main figure of the trilogy, and sets him somewhat in the background. Gleason is sparkly as the likable young guy, the funny and word-wise chorus. But he tells us his main goals early: "become a writer, not get killed, fall in love, and lose my virginity." No surprises here: He takes care of them all.
The production's best thing is the battle of wills between fellow trainee Arnold Epstein (done beautifully by a bespectacled Luke Bradt), a thoughtful, dyspeptic, deeply read Jew who insists on dignity and compassion; and Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (the tremendous Andrew Criss, about to pop his uniform with muscles and rage), who, in his own mind, is "trying to save these boys' lives" through discipline, drill, acid insult, and ritual humiliation.
Bradt and Criss crackle on stage; lighting designer James Leitner bathes their scenes in glaring light. Director Tony Braithwaite does even better with their through-line than with his comic specialty. Soldier's and sergeant's viewpoints are just too far apart. More than personal degradation, Epstein is fighting anti-Semitism; his fellow Jew Eugene can but record Epstein's heroic stand. Sgt. Toomey, as Criss plays him, is splendid, down to his pleasure in others' pain. In the climactic scene of Act Two, involving a pistol, a veterans' home, and a bet, Criss and Bradt take the production into high-stakes territory.
So there are questions of moment — leavened with hijinks and smiles. Eugene has his first big night with professional madame Rowena (played with blowsy knowingness by Heather Plank) and his first love thanks to Catholic girl Daisy Hannigan (the bright Anne Wechsler). (This subplot strikes me as saccharine, I'm afraid; nostalgia clearly overcame the author.)
One liners? Oh, yes: "The Army is really dumb. If the Navy is this dumb, we'll have to take a train to Europe!" One soldier, aching to get his turn with a sex worker, howls, "Hurry up, damn it! I'm going to pass my peak!" Dared to enumerate the sexual positions, first-timer Eugene says: "There are 52! I saw a dirty deck of cards once." My favorite is a piece of wisdom: "Without problems, the day would be over at 11 o'clock in the morning."
Aside from the Eugene/Sgt. Toomey contretemps, little is ruthless or truly dark; even the horrors of war seem exorcised. Act II Playhouse is taking care of the audience, who responded by eating up Gleason, nodding at a morality tale about tolerance, and indulging in a tale of a boy's growing up.