On Theater: Simon's 'Biloxi Blues' blends humor, poignancy

About a quarter of a century ago, Neil Simon wrote his fictionalized autobiography — and, being Simon, he took three plays to do it. "Biloxi Blues," the second in his "BB trilogy," is the meat in this theatrical sandwich, slipped in neatly between "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Broadway Bound."

Absent for some time in local theater, "Biloxi Blues" returns in triumph at the Newport Theatre Arts Center under the direction of Gigi Fusco Meese, whose splendid handling of predominantly male material ("Mr. Roberts," "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial," "A Few Good Men") makes her the ideal choice for this dramatic comedy about Army basic training in the midst of World War II.

Meese has chosen a superlative cast for this dramatic comedy of six raw recruits under the iron baton of a psychotic platoon sergeant, none more impressive than the sergeant himself. Mark Kaufman exudes sadistic authority in the manner of (and bearing a striking resemblance to) his screen counterpart, Christopher Walken.

The centerpiece of this story is Simon's thinly disguised version of himself, Eugene Morris Jerome, who's gathering material for future writing projects while undergoing the drudgery of basic training. Nathaniel Charpentier fits quite comfortably into the role of character and narrator, conveying his thoughts to the audience with a Simonized ironic twist.

Eugene is one of two Jewish recruits, the other being his buddy Epstein (Seth Weiner), a doughy misfit and intellectual rebel who nevertheless has the cojones to challenge the sergeant. Weiner taps deeply into both dimensions of Epstein's psyche in a fine interpretation.

The strongest actor in an exceptionally strong cast is Alec Malczynski as the bombastic Polish soldier Wykowski, who lords it over his buddies both physically and vocally. Malczynski takes stage with a vengeance in an incendiary performance.

Kyle Gallagher is well cast as the musically gifted Carney, who dreams of Broadway stardom. The other two recruits — Alex DesCombes and Taylor Simmons — fit comfortably into the mix.

Simon's doppelganger Eugene encounters a little romance along the way, first while losing his virginity to a worldly wise Biloxi prostitute (Victoria Baker), then in a chaste relationship with a vibrantly shy Catholic school girl (Brisa Freitas). Both scenes are well played for their contrasting comic value.

Andrew Otero's barracks setting, allowing for transition to a USO dance hall and a Biloxi cathouse, is skillfully rendered. Bettie Muellenberg and Joni Stockinger have created authentic WWII-era military costumes, while Mitch Atkins' lighting designs are very effective.

"Biloxi Blues" will be particularly appreciated by anyone who's ever endured the physical and mental rigors of military basic training. It's another jewel in the crown of director Meese and the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Biloxi Blues"

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays until Oct. 16

Cost: $20

Call: (949) 631-0288

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