Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Need a good laugh? Try Biloxi Blues

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Theater review: 'Biloxi Blues': Profile does Neil Simon proud

by Richard Wattenberg, Special to The Oregonian

Sunday January 18, 2009, 4:11 PM

Exploring topics such as anti-Semitism and homophobia and setting the action against a background of war (even a relatively distant war) sounds like a formula for a pretty gritty in-your-face play. Yet, a playwright can take on such baggage and still sidestep controversy as Neil Simon demonstrates in the 1985 successful "Biloxi Blues."

Currently receiving a very polished production from Profile Theatre, this boot-camp play may prompt viewers to think about the questionable "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military, the troubling tension between military discipline and brutality, or the unfortunate persistence of religious, ethnic, and racial prejudices, but it primarily tells an up-beat coming-of-age story set during the World War II era. Good spirited humor and gentle nostalgia wash over the disturbing issues.

The second part--following "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and preceding "Broadway Bound" -- of Simon's semi-autobiographical Eugene trilogy, "Biloxi Blues" can comfortably stand alone. The play's action is framed by opening and closing scenes set in railroad coaches: the first takes place on a train carrying Eugene, would-be writer and a kind of stand-in for Simon, and four other raw recruits to Biloxi, Miss., where they will undergo a grueling 10-week basic training, and the second, on the train carrying the now more savvy soldiers from Biloxi to the ships that will convey them to the European front.

Between these bookend scenes, the body of the play traces the relations of the soldiers to their old-style, tough Biloxi drill sergeant but also includes off-the-base sequences in which Eugene loses his virginity and then falls in love.

Director Pat Patton has a good feel for the play -- nicely balancing comedy and earnestness. Patton keeps the loosely structured piece moving at a brisk clip and draws strong, sharply defined performances from all in the ensemble.

Alec Wilson grows into the role of Eugene, who is both a participant in and a narrator of the action; Wilson smoothly makes the transitions between well-meaning innocence and wry commentary.

Among the actors playing Eugene's fellow recruits, Matthew Sa especially stands out. He adeptly captures the fragile nature and uncompromising self-confidence of the sensitive, intellectual, but willful individualist, Epstein.

Todd Hermanson gives dimension to the over-bearing drill sergeant, Merwin J. Toomey. He does well with the bullying, loud aspects of this character, but he also movingly conveys Toomey's gentler side and inner contradictions at play's end.

Set designer Tal Sanders finds various clever solutions to the play's cinematic loose structure, and Rose Etta Menger's lighting as well as Rodolpho Ortega's sound design go a long way toward establishing the multiple locations required by the play.

All told, this is Simon at his best. The play might not be politically or socially contentious, but it is fun, and Patton and company have done it justice.

"Biloxi Blues"

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 15

Where: Theater! Theatre!, 3430 S.E. Belmont St.

Tickets: $12-$28, 503-242-0080 or online

Web site:

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