Biloxi Blues: Where Comedy and Character Depth Meet
After a brief hiatus last semester, YCDS has returned in full form with a production of Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical play, Biloxi Blues. The play is essentially a comedy, but at the same time a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age story. Eugene Jerome (Ezra Felder) is a young and naïve Brooklynite who is whisked off to Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training during WWII. The play revolves around his mission statement for his time in Biloxi: to stay alive, become a writer and lose his virginity. By the end of the play, he accomplishes his goals, in albeit unexpected ways. The connections created between the young soldiers from their shared experience under the wrath of a tyrannical sergeant stand at the heart of the play, and the actors of YCDS manage to convey a sense of strong brotherhood.
While each actor brings out the unique and complex personalities of each soldier-in-training, Yaacov Siev steals the show with his explosive portrayal of the authoritarian Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey. Siev's southern drawl sounds authentic, and he makes excellent use of his booming and commanding voice to humiliate and intimidate the new arrivals. The way he carries himself makes his sheer physicality a force of authority. The sergeant spends large amounts of time shouting in the soldiers' faces with unrelenting persistence, and I would not be surprised if some of his wild antics are improvised at times. You can feel the palpable intensity of Toomey's presence when he pushes his recruits to their emotional and physical limits, especially when he makes his recruits perform one hundred push-ups on the spot. The actors throw themselves into the moment, allowing the audience to relate to their struggle.
The play sets up the character of Arnold Epstein (David Cutler) as the polar opposite of Toomey: reserved and a non-conformist, yet, at the same time, he is someone who is unafraid to speak his mind. From the first time they encounter each other, you get the sense that, in the words of Heath Ledger's Joker, "this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object." The tension between Toomey's dominance and Epstein's defiance escalates throughout the length of the play, and climaxes in a scene where the sergeant almost puts Epstein's life on the line. The relationship that develops between the two is enjoyably unpredictable, and has a strong resemblance to the relationship at the heart of the movie Whiplash. In this film, an unforgiving music teacher pushes his student to unreasonable extremes, and while the student despises him for his methods, he eventually comes to an appreciation of this extremist approach. Without giving too much away, Epstein seems to go through a similar acceptance of Toomey's ideology of someone whose entire being is dedicated to creating perfect soldiers. The fact that we really get in touch with both of these characters makes the final scene of the play all the more satisfying and memorable.
An interesting theme that runs through the play that was absent from the last several YCDS productions is the explicit references to Jews and Judaism. The two main characters are both Jewish, and Arnold Epstein’s Jewishness is repeatedly emphasized with his references to "Talmudic Reasoning." At one point, one soldier pokes fun at him, predicting that he will end up at an institution like YU (the self-reference here comes off as a bit cringe-worthy). Both Eugene and Epstein face prejudice because of their Judaism, especially in the form of their fellow soldier Joseph Wykowski, whose roughness is portrayed well by Jack Turell. The play also explores the topic of homophobia, and it does a great job of giving the audience a sense of historical context by addressing both of these issues, prevalent taboos in 1940's American society.
Choosing Biloxi Blues for this semester’s production might seem puzzling. A given for any YCDS play is the absence of female actors, and this limits the options of plays to choose from where this would not cause major issues. Interestingly, Biloxi Blues has a major female role in its original conceptions, and the film version starring Matthew Broderick devotes a lot of attention to a budding relationship between Eugene and Daisy, a girl who is only described by Eugene in this production. While we do see Eugene indulging in his love for her in a well-executed "dancing" scene, it does feel like Daisy is a character who is conspicuously missing. This issue is also relevant when Eugene accomplishes his goal of losing his virginity, which all takes place behind the scenes. It seems somewhat inconsistent to keep something that is such a major element of Eugene's development as something that is only implied. On the other hand, I can also see why leaving out these elements of the play is not a huge sacrifice. This play immerses the audience into the dynamics of these ragtag soldiers, so much so that their exploits outside of the army base become somewhat secondary to their interactions among each other. The focus is not so much on how they achieve their aspirations, but on how these soldiers perceive their fellow's achievements.
Biloxi Blues premiers this Saturday night, with performances on Sunday at 3 pm, and from Monday to Thursday at 9pm. Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office.