American plays, films, and novels have long mined military service as a source of different types of comedy. There are the broad farces (from Charlie Chaplin to Bill Murray), the edgy satires (Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Robert Altman's original MASH), and hybrids blending humor with more serious issues (the play and film Mister Roberts). Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues, currently receiving a fine revival at People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, falls into this last group. Simon's trademark witty quips are abundant, but the play also incisively explores recognizable human fears and weaknesses, and much of the humor is rooted in pain.
Biloxi Blues is the middle entry in the alliteratively titled autobiographical trilogy Simon wrote in the '80s. Sandwiched between Brighton Beach Memoirs, which dealt with the playwright's youth in Brooklyn, and Broadway Bound, which covered his beginnings as a professional comedy writer, Biloxi Blues recounts his hellish experience in Army basic training during World War II.
Eugene Jerome, Simon's alter ego, arrives by train in Mississippi with a group of other green, mismatched draftees. The climate is horrible, but that's the least of their problems: They're placed under the command of Sgt. Merwin Toomey, who had been in combat but was transferred stateside due to a head injury. Toomey claims to value discipline, but he carries his passion to the point of sadism, delighting in humiliating the GIs and trying to turn them against one another. Toomey and rebellious Eugene immediately clash, and Eugene, an aspiring writer, alienates his fellow soldiers with observations he records in his journal. Epstein, the principled intellectual among the GIs, warns Eugene not to compromise in his writing, "or else you're already a candidate for mediocrity."
Biloxi Blues has a leisurely pace and episodic structure, as Eugene loses his virginity in a brothel and falls in love with a sweet Southern girl; one of the GIs runs afoul of military law and is hauled away; and the men's relationship with Toomey comes to a boil.
Under Samantha Bellomo's able direction, the cast offers a model of teamwork. As Eugene, James Michael Lambert delivers Simon's dry one-liners with precision, and he conveys the character's awkwardness in sexual initiation and elation on experiencing first love. Pete Pryor is appropriately boorish and a bit frightening as Toomey. Other standouts include Jordan Geiger's affecting Epstein; Jon Mulhearn as Wykowski, the barracks stud; and Julianna Zinkel as the earthy prostitute who introduces Eugene to the pleasures of the flesh.
James F. Pyne Jr.'s versatile set cleverly suggests locales ranging from the barracks interior to a cramped train car to the forbidding Mississippi swamps.