STAGE REVIEWS : 'Biloxi Blues' Highlights Simon Trilogy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

West Coast Ensemble in Hollywood has brought the area its first rotating look at Neil Simon's autobiographical trilogy. For the next month, each of the three plays--"Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound"--will be presented twice each week.

Because no single actor is in more than one of the plays, the production doesn't meet the fullest definition of repertory . It would be more of a challenge for one actor to play Simon's alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome, in all three plays.

Yet it's probably just as well that three actors pass the role around. When "Brighton Beach" begins, it's 1937, and Eugene is still a growing boy. That play's Eugene, Jay Lambert, looks exactly the right age, in contrast with some of his predecessors in the role. You can say the same for David Kaufman, as the 1943 Eugene in "Biloxi Blues," and Jeff Wolfman, as the 1949 Eugene in "Broadway Bound."

Four of the other roles overlap between "Brighton Beach" and "Broadway Bound." Because these characters are all grown-ups in both plays, it's conceivable that single actors could do the double duty--with appropriate makeup, of course. This production, perhaps in order to give more actors a chance, doesn't attempt that.

For two of those roles, it doesn't matter much. As Eugene's brother Stan, David Youse in "Brighton" and Chuck Marra in "Broadway" are close enough in looks and spirit that it's easy to believe they're the same character. Likewise with Nancy Boykin as Eugene's Aunt Blanche in "Brighton" and Arlene Malinowski as Blanche in "Broadway."

The casting of Eugene's parents is more problematic. As Kate, Toni Moss-Trenton in "Brighton" is excessively brittle and hard-edged, almost artificially so, while Laura Rittenberg in "Broadway" could use a sharper edge. In the text, the character grows more embittered as the years go by, but that's not the effect here. Rittenberg's performance also was affected on opening night by a slight hesitation with some of her lines.

The problems are more cosmetic in the casting of Eugene's father Jack. Tony Pandolfo in "Brighton" is considerably bigger, with a thicker Old World accent, than Ben D'Aubrey in "Broadway." While each performance is fine in its own context, particularly D'Aubrey's, they're a mismatch when seen in tandem.

None of these concerns come up in Claudia Jaffee's staging of "Biloxi Blues," and it's also the production's most compelling entry in many other respects. Its ensemble is the most seamless, its pacing brisker (and the play itself is slightly shorter).

It's also the one play in which Eugene goes significantly beyond his position as narrator and is thrust onto the hot seat that's reserved for his senior family members in the other plays. Kaufman is up to the challenge, as are Richard Israel as the unit's resolutely stubborn rebel and John Marzilli as its equally resolute drill sergeant. But every member of the "Biloxi" cast is beyond reproach.

Jim Barbaley's set is less streamlined, by necessity, than the set in larger-scale productions of "Biloxi," but Ed Hammond's sound design admirably fills the gaps during the set changes.

Despite the casting blips, Dan Kern's staging of "Brighton" and Paula Catania's of "Broadway" retain most of the plays' ability to move and amuse. "Broadway" in particular boasts two exceptional performances in Marra's Stanley--so alert and alive that Stanley almost becomes the center of the play--and Jack Axelrod's Ben, the cantankerous socialist grandfather.

"Brighton" and "Broadway" share the same overstuffed, well-worn apartment, with appropriate alterations made to reflect the presence of more residents in the earlier play. Patricia Wilson's costumes carefully reflect the eras.

Seen now, "Broadway" no longer seems the grand culmination of everything that went before, as it was described by some critics when it first came out. Certainly the other plays are just as good, and the under-appreciated "Biloxi" has a legitimate claim to be considered the best of the three.

Then again, some critics now imply that all of these were merely the prelude to Simon's current "Lost in Yonkers." Certainly they whet the appetite for "Yonkers," which is scheduled to play two blocks away, at the Doolittle Theatre, next summer.

"Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound," West Coast Ensemble, 6240 Hollywood Blvd., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 15. Each play, $15; all three, $30. (213) 788-5900. Running times: "Brighton," 2 hours, 40 minutes; "Biloxi," 2 hours, 30 minutes; "Broadway," 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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