The second installment in Neil Simon's autobiographical trilogy, "Biloxi Blues" is the prolific playwright's first service comedy.
In the current production by the Thousand Oaks-based Conejo Players, Simon takes his alter ego, aspiring writer Eugene Jerome, through World War II basic training in Mississippi. That's a long way from his childhood home in Brooklyn, territory explored by the Conejo Players last year when they performed the first installment, "Brighton Beach Memoirs."
Part 3, "Broadway Bound," is already scheduled by the company for about this time next year.
Due to the tightly structured nature of basic training, vicissitudes are few. So, in the long tradition of service comedies, "Biloxi Blues" is almost forced to pile on the cliches: naive intellectuals meet naive rednecks, and the expected cultural differences ensue. Simon created a tough but lovable drill instructor, a bullying (but ultimately lovable) anti-Semite, a tough but tender hooker to whom Eugene loses his virginity, and an innocent townie (from Catholic school, no less) with whom Eugene falls in something like love.
The play's structure is episodic, running in a straight line with no digressions. Eugene's lines, many of them narration delivered directly to the audience, vary between wisecracks and what he considers to be pithy observations on the nature of mankind in general, Eugene specifically.
For all its predictability, "Biloxi Blues" is frequently very funny and occasionally touching, if in an obvious kind of way. Simon finds no new strings to pull, but at least he gives his stereotyped characters some unexpected dimension.
Eugene and Arnold Epstein become friends, due in large part to cultural parallels and that the two are by far the most intelligent characters in the play. But the two are in some ways mirror images of one another: Eugene the calm observer and Arnold an impetuous, ego-driven troublemaker, sympathetically portrayed by Adam Hanlon and Gary Romm, respectively.
The other members of Eugene's platoon are Joseph Wynorsky and Roy Selridge, played by J.J. Lincoln and Jeff Calnitz; callow Don Carney, in an especially notable performance by Beau Killett; and the rather shallowly drawn James Hennesey, somewhat inscrutably limned by Michael Barker.
Phil Rope is Sgt. Toomey, a man determined to turn these lads into men, and Heather Kennedy plays Rowena, who fills the same function in her own way--with a honeysuckle-filled accent, incidentally, that's occasionally a bit thick for Yankees to comprehend. (Some other actors could have worked a bit more on their projection, and one of the main characters was dropping lines with disturbing frequency on the show's second night).
Director Bill Poleri shows a solid grasp of the play's characters, and he and set designer Lee Manko use the theater's revolving stage to create several changes of scene with usually remarkable efficiency. Their re-creation of a train car is particularly fun.
C'Dale Gross' costumes and props and scenic painter Ken Alexander effectively suggest Army barracks life.
Sabrina Carlson appears briefly as Daisy Hannigan, who meets Eugene at a U.S.O. dance and finds him charming--rather inexplicably, one might suggest.
But then, who's to stop Neil Simon from rewriting his life any way he chooses?
* WHERE AND WHEN
"Biloxi Blues" continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. through Sept. 28 at the Conejo Players' Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road, in Thousand Oaks. General admission tickets are $8 on Thursdays, and $10 on Fridays and Saturdays. For reservations or further information, call (805) 495-3715.