Neil Simon could hardly go wrong setting "Biloxi Blues" in an Army boot camp during World War II. When young soldiers of various ethnic extractions are thrown together in a hot Mississippi barracks, they can be counted on to fight each other while training to fight the Germans. And between the mess hall and the latrine, there is no shortage of material for one-liners.
But the one-liners aren't just facile insults in "Biloxi Blues." They are character based and come directly from Mr. Simon's own youthful experiences. In the justly celebrated autobiographical trilogy comprising "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound," he really shows us how he got to be such a funny guy. Actually, some of what happens to him isn't so funny, but check out the biography of any comedian and you'll see how early sorrow gives rise to humorous treatment later on.
The current production of "Biloxi Blues" in the upstairs cabaret of Essex Community College's Cockpit in Court summer theater does a nice job of balancing the comic and melancholic aspects of the play. Although some of the young cast members don't deliver the flippant put-downs with enough ease, at least their sputtering seems appropriate for characters who sway anxiously between late adolescence and maturity.
As the Neil Simon surrogate figure, Eugene Morris Jerome, actor Matthew Douglas Rowe is suitably naive and eager. This actor coincidentally shares the same first name as the actor who originated the role on Broadway, Matthew Broderick, but fortunately does not attempt a clone performance. Mr. Rowe convincingly inhabits this all-important role. However, he consistently disappoints in his asides to the audience, which come off as flat.
Keeping memoirs of his attempts to gain experience in love and war, Eugene Morris Jerome quickly realizes that life down here is not at all like his native Brooklyn. Initially he feels some kinship with a fellow budding Jewish intellectual, Arnold Epstein (sensitively played by Brian A. Ruff), only to realize that Arnold has problems well beyond a nervous stomach.
Eugene and Arnold are very much at odds with such barracks mates as the anti-Semitic redneck Joseph Wykowski (Nathan Lance Irwin), but a measure of Mr. Simon's skillful script is that even such antagonists as Wykowski emerge as almost sympathetic.
The supporting performances are pretty much on the mark, but as the lean and mean Sgt. Mervin J. Toomey, Patrick Ian McConnell needs to be louder and more threatening. When he orders his men to do push-ups, there should be no doubt that he wants them done now.
"Biloxi Blues" runs at Essex Community College's Cockpit in Court's upstairs cabaret theater through Sunday. For ticket information call 522-1269.