Simon's `Biloxi Blues' on Broadway is a partial success

Biloxi Blues Play by Neil Simon. Starring Matthew Broderick. Directed by Gene Saks. Matthew Broderick, who created the role of adolescent Eugene Morris Jerome in Neil Simon's 1983 ``Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' still running on Broadway, now heads the cast of ``Biloxi Blues,'' which opened last night at the Neil Simon Theatre. The new comedy pursues Eugene's adventures as the emergent young man and civilian-soldier learns the facts of life and the military.

The adventures begin in 1943 aboard the antique railroad car carrying Eugene and four fellow GIs to the ordeal of basic training in Biloxi, Miss. In the play's two acts, divided into 14 scenes, Mr. Simon studies race and human relations within the format of a traditional barracks-room comedy, replete with bawdy GI humor and one of those sergeants who insults, humiliates, and bullies his awkward squads into obedience. ``Biloxi Blues'' seeks, with varying success, to harmonize comic and serious themes -- all conveyed through the eyewitness account of Eugene, who occasionally steps out of the frame to reminisce and comment. His worst moments occur after his bunkmates discover what Eugene has been writing about them in his ``memoirs.''

The play's theme and method place exceptional demands on young Mr. Broderick, who meets them with exceptional resource and unforced charm. Eugene serves as a central presence who must nevertheless step aside when Mr. Simon is pursuing what emerges as the central theme of ``Biloxi Blues,'' the ugliness of racism, specifically anti-Semitism.

In this context, Arnold Epstein (Barry Miller) becomes the focal figure. It is Epstein who challenges Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (Bill Sadler) and suffers the taunts of fellow soldiers while Eugene, his fellow Jew, makes no effort to defend him. Despite bullying and discrimination, Epstein stubbornly persists in his brand of defiance. Even friendly overtures don't move him. Finally it is Epstein who figures in the payoff scene that climaxes ``Biloxi Blues.''

Mr. Simon's latest semiautobiographical work offers rewards on both of its two principal levels. The contemporary American theater's major comic dramatist can write comedy dialogue from reveille to taps without ever seeming to tire. His handling of the darker themes can be poignant and even shattering. Yet ``Biloxi Blues'' appears to suffer from a certain lack of control untypical of this consummate craftsman. Like the play's introductory train journey, the first act grows long and wearying. The more lively second act breaks up into nine scenes in which Eugene encounters the perils of being a memoirist, gets a sordid introduction to sex, and experiences his first true love.

``Biloxi Blues'' ends on a falling note during the train journey to civilian life as Eugene tells briefly what has happened to his buddies, himself, and the girl he left behind in Mississippi.

The cast headed by young Mr. Broderick meets the play's demands with expressive vitality. Mr. Miller makes his Broadway mark as the small but unbending Epstein. Mr. Sadler's Toomey can join the ranks of terrifying sergeants, even though Mr. Simon dispatches him in a drunken scene of dubious sentimentality. Aside from its comic finesse, the strength of the performance staged by Gene Saks lies in the fact that the spectator comes to care about these very reluctant heroes. They are well played by Matt Mulhern, Alan Ruck, Brian Tarantina, and Geoffrey Sharp. They enliven ``Biloxi Blues.'' So do Penelope Ann Miller as Daisy Hannigan, Eugene's momentary sweetheart, and Randall Edwards as the prostitute who initiates him into sex.

David Mitchell's scenic design employs mobile set pieces against backgrounds that range from West Virginia's lovely mountains (in a cinematic projection) to the dismal vastness of the camp at Biloxi. Tharon Musser's lighting responds to the play's complex needs. Government issue and Ann Roth have provided the World War II era costumes.

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