Engaging in the Army

In Arizona Rep's hands, Neil Simon's boot-camp tale succeeds in every way

Neil Simon is prolific and popular, but he's written only three first-rate plays, together forming a semi-autobiographical trilogy in which young Eugene Jerome comes of age and becomes a writer in the 1930s and '40s. The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre is presenting each of them, one per year; the company has now put up the middle panel in this triptych, Biloxi Blues, the most loosely structured but most emotionally and intellectually complex work in the series.

It's 1943, and our wry young hero has been drafted and sent to boot camp in Biloxi, Miss. Wrested for the first time from his loving but somewhat nutty and oppressive family, Eugene soon learns that this foul-mouthed, foul-smelling company of men in Biloxi will not easily become a surrogate family. He's bunking with an assortment of misfits and bullies, all ridden hard by a sadistic drill sergeant who may just be clinically insane.

It's all Eugene can do to focus on his three goals for his Army experience: stay alive, lose his virginity and become a real writer.

Staying alive is tough enough in boot camp; it's not so much that the drill sergeant directly puts him in mortal danger, but Sgt. Toomey's torture of Eugene's bunkmates usually comes back somehow to something Eugene has inadvertently said or done. If Toomey doesn't kill him, his bunkmates will.

Losing his virginity is less of a challenge, thanks to the availability of a local whore. Still, the process intimidates Eugene more than a 15-mile midnight hike through the swamps and snakes. When the prostitute asks if Eugene would like her to turn out the lights, he replies, "Actually, I'd like a blindfold." This is a kid who could've grown up to be Woody Allen. Too bad the glib Neil Simon loomed in his future.

As for becoming a writer, Eugene is never without his notebooks, which fill steadily with his memoirs-in-progress. Angst-ridden as he may be, Eugene is not self-absorbed; he develops a skill for observing truths about his comrades that they don't recognize in themselves. And once the guys get hold of what Eugene has been writing about them, he also learns what has apparently become Neil Simon's credo: Never offend your audience with too much brutal honesty.

Herein lies the problem with Simon's trilogy: Eugene is, for the most part, a wry and endearing but largely uninvolved witness. In plays that are ostensibly about the turning points in his life, Eugene is little more than a subplot.

Nevertheless, the characters lunging and kvetching and farting all around him are mostly a varied, nuanced lot. In Biloxi Blues, Simon does bring one character in late, makes him a sort of voice of reason, then writes him out before we've had a chance to care about him. The others, though, are highly engaging, no matter how offensive some may be.

Principal among them is Pvt. Arnold Epstein, about the worst thing you can be in the Army: a physically unfit, intellectual New York Jew who spends most of his time letting it be known that he is in high dudgeon. Matthew Bowdren plays Epstein wonderfully deadpan. Standing at attention, he's an awkward girly man, but Bowdren is also capable of great pathos, particularly when Epstein is subjected to vicious, anti-Semitic humiliations. (Biloxi Blues deals with a couple of serious social issues, which Simon somehow never trivializes with his steady stream of hilarious one-liners; the funny stuff here is keyed to character, not box-office receipts.)

All the actors playing the privates work exceptionally well as an ensemble; chief among them is Dane Corrigan as the aggressive, abusive Wykowski. Lisa Rothschiller manages to make the prostitute seem like a fairly well-rounded character in her single scene, without resorting to any of the usual hooker clichés, and late in the play, Elizabeth Keller is exactly what she needs to be--smart and adorable--as Eugene's love interest.

The two actors most critical to the production's success perform splendidly. We knew from last year's Brighton Beach Memoirs that J. Michael Trautmann is a natural-born Eugene: innocent without being entirely naive, witty, boyish, rubber-faced and a master of comic timing. His Eugene in Brighton Beach Memoirs was a fully convincing kid; here, he's an equally convincing young man, and it will be interesting to see what Trautmann makes of the character in Broadway Bound if he's brought back next year, now that he's graduating.

Guest artist Stephen Elton keeps the demanding, loud, yet oddly loquacious Sgt. Toomey perfectly in his sights from beginning to end. As directed by Brent Gibbs--who keeps the whole show flowing beautifully, each scene in perfect rhythm--Elton's Toomey is perhaps not the lunatic that Eugene and his comrades see him to be. This is not, after all, Full Metal Jacket, so if Elton doesn't display the last measure of scary volatility, he's justified in making up for it in craftiness and just the faintest hint of inner humanity.

Sally Day's scenic design is appropriately boot-camp dreary, and the cramped train coach in which the play begins and ends is a model of telling economy. The rest of the production team contributes substantially to a production that is, across the board, one of the most satisfying things the UA has done this academic year.

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