I know that playwrights like Neil Simon are real people, but sometimes it’s easier to think of them as Greek Gods of the stage. You hear their names, you see the lightning power of their words reenacted on the stage, but their behind-the-scenes presence makes them feel like invisible hands. But, it’s true, Neil Simon is a mortal born in 1927, who is still alive and who at one point in time had not yet received more Tony and Oscar awards than any other writer. In fact, 25 years ago Montana Repertory artistic director Greg Johnson sat with Neil Simon in a rehearsal hall on Lower Broadway. Johnson was a young theater artist at the time stage managing the national tour of Biloxi Blues. The play had already won a Tony Award, but at this point it was merely Simon’s first award. He was still going over small edits here and there as the play was being rehearsed. Johnson recalls that Simon said very little—it was the director, Gene Saks, who got Johnson thinking about the play when he said, “This is not Army comedy.”
Biloxi Blues is a comedy about young men going off to war, but it’s also about loneliness and anxiety. Johnson says he’s learned to play the scenes straight—the humor bubbles up naturally rather than through slapstick. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of Simon’s life, about Eugene Morris Jerome, a young man trying to be a writer (and lose his virginity) while struggling through wartime. If you saw UM’s School of Theatre and Dance put on Brighton Beach Memoirs in 2009, you might be interested to know that Biloxi Blues is a sequel—part of a triology—to that coming-of-age play.
The national tour performance of Biloxi is, in many ways, revisiting a classic. But with so many decades to think about how this play matters, having Johnson at the helm might give it that extra depth that the great (yet, clearly human) Neil Simon had in mind.
(Erika Fredrickson)Biloxi Blues shows at the Montana Theatre in UM’s PARTV Center. $20/$16 seniors/$10 children 12 and younger. go to montanarep.org for more info.