Biloxi Blues got well-deserved exposure when it was released as a film in 1988 starring Matthew Broderick–freshly celebrated for his title role in Ferris Bueller's Day Off–as the lead and Christopher Walken as Sgt. Toomey. The film is a good rendition of the original play; funny and subtle in the ways Neil Simon meant it to be as it deals with homophobia, anti-semitism and coming of age, with World War II as a backdrop. For the most part, the film version got good reviews, though there are a few absurd criticisms on IMDB that call it out for being too "Neil Simon-y." Well, okay. What makes it good is Neil Simon and the way he writes dialogue. But if it doesn't always translate from a stage performance to film, it's because we're not used to the style. On stage, Simon's words seem a little more at home, which is one reason why you should experience the Montana Repertory Theatre's touring production of Biloxi Blues, even if you've seen the Hollywood version a million times on television.
Another reason to see this year's production, directed by the Rep's artistic director, Greg Johnson, is that it has a solid gold cast. The play opens with six young recruits on the train headed to Biloxi, Miss., for boot camp. Here we get a sense of their personalities as they joke and fart and wonder, together, what they're in for. Dylan J. Rodwick plays Eugene Morris Jerome, the disarming narrator who's based on Simon. He's an aspiring writer who hopes to survive the war and lose his virginity. Like Wil Wheaton's character in the film Stand By Me, he's the observer whose charm stems from his sense of fairness and good will. Hugh Bickley plays Joseph Wykowski with enough humanity to make us sympathetic even in his meat-headed tendencies. Also fun to watch is Sam Williamson, who played Eugene Morris Jerome in Brighton Beach Memoirs, the prequel to Biloxi Blues, in the University of Montana's 2009 production. His Eugene was a little goofier, perhaps appropriate for a young pre-war version, and that comedic energy translates well into his new role as the clownish Roy Selridge. There's also Colton Swibold as the dreamy-eyed crooner Don Carney, and Colton Hochhalter as James Hennesey, whose eventual tarnished reputation speaks to the issues Simon boldly explores, both of whom bring to life their characters in a way that makes them painfully relatable.
The standouts in this production, however, are the equity actors. Mark Kuntz as Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey rattles off explosive lines with delicious precision, such as, "I'm in charge of this platoon during your 10 weeks of basic training here in beautiful Biloxi, Miss., after which you'll be sent to some shit island in the Pacific or some turd pile in northern Sicily. In either case, returning to your mamas and papas with your balls intact is highly improbable." Later, in perhaps the best scene in the show, we see him face-to-face with a Jewish recruit, in a state of breakdown. Kuntz's keen delivery of a man weighed down by nerves is a delicate balance between hilarity and horror.
Nora Munde Gustuson, who did a stellar job as a UM student in Montana Rep's Leading Ladies a few years ago, shows why she's a professional actress now with her role as the (perhaps unlikely) glamorous prostitute Rowena. But the most sizzling performance, because he does it so naturally, is Michael Lawrence Eisenstein as Arnold Epstein, the Jewish private. Epstein might be the most layered character in the show, and also the most defiant. In a way, he overshadows Eugene, as if he were the main character. Epstein is the outcast who stands up for what he believes in, and it's easy to see him—flaws and all—as the person any one of us aspires to be. But it's not just that his character is so great, it's that even with little expression on his face, the bespeckled Eisenstein ignites Epstein, projecting such intensity, without over-dramatizing, that he steals the show.
This is a remarkable play—a war story that is somehow less about war and more about the conviction of people's dreams. When the men steal Eugene's journal to read out loud, Eugene decides to destroy the journal out of guilt for what he's written. Epstein stops him, saying, "Once your start compromising your thoughts, you're a candidate for mediocrity." Eisenstein's delivery of that line stands out, despite it being said in the aftermath of what might appear to be a more dramatic moment. That one line is the nut of Biloxi Blues. The fact that this quiet but powerful idea never gets buried is both a tribute to Simon and to the actors in this production.
The Montana Rep's Biloxi Blues continues at the Montana Theatre at UM's PARTV Center Thu., Jan. 31 and Sat., Feb. 2 at 7:30 PM nightly. $20/$16 students and seniors.