We call World War II "the good war." Is that because the wars since then have had an ugly, indecisive character? Is it, rather, that enough time has passed that the bad stuff of World War II has become easier to overlook? Or maybe, it's the fact that World War II ended with the unconditional surrender of our enemies, which casts a comforting glow on the years of uncertainty, deprivations and losses.
World War II is in full swing when Biloxi Blues begins. It's 1943. Eugene Morris Jerome -- a Jewish boy from New York -- is on a troop train, heading for boot camp in Biloxi, Miss. Gene wants to be a writer, and he is preparing himself by keeping a journal, which he calls "his memoirs." A scattering of the famous (or infamous) Neil Simon one-liners reflects the wit and endurance of the fresh recruits: "his voice was flat, but his sister wasn't," for instance, or a running gag about Arnold Epstein's farting. This sitcom-like levity is less abundant than in many other Simon plays, however. Or maybe it just seems more natural, given the jail-like barracks setting and the irascible male camaraderie at the core of the drama.
In any case, the platoon is composed of Selridge, Wykowski, Carney, Hennesey, Jerome and Epstein. They are a discordant bunch. Their nemesis is Sgt. Toomey, whose job it is to instill unquestioning obedience into his charges -- the kind of obedience, he says, that it takes to storm a machine gun nest. Toomey rides the guys pretty hard. He deliberately affronts their sense of fairness, and he dares them to challenge him. He plays on their resentment of what seems like his favoritism. He administers, in fact, a sort of psychological torture on one and all. His saving grace is not so much "a good heart beneath a tough exterior," but rather a sense that he really believes in what he is doing, that he has been under fire and knows what it takes to have any chance of coming out alive. In Bob Scully's hands, this enigmatic character come hauntingly alive. You are never sure whether the sergeant is basically decent or a bit off his rocker -- or both. In some ways, he represents exactly that troubling oxymoron: a "good war."
I call attention to Scully's performance first because, for the play to engage us, the sergeant must equal the weight of all the recruits. For beneath the story of Gene's coming of age, there is the continual battle of wills between the platoon and Toomey. This battle is waged most intensely by the mephitic Arnold Epstein (Blake Balu), who is the other Jew among the recruits. The climax of the Epstein versus Toomey set-to is weirdly fascinating. You have the feeling you are supposed to be watching some kind of spiritual triumph, and yet you are never entirely sure it's not also a personality in disintegration.
In any case, Richard Alexander Pomes does a credible job as the central character Gene. So do the rest of the men: Tony Terrebonne as Selridge, Matt Guido as Wykowski, Tim Callais as Carney and Jonathan Mares as Hennesey. And so do the women: Marinda Woodruff as a fille-de-something-less-than-joie and Ashley Ricord as Gene's heartthrob.
A tip of the hat to Mikko, who directed and designed the show. Mikko has so often surprised us with unconventional productions in unconventional places. Here, he shows a sure touch with middle-of-the-road material. He treats the story and the characters with respect, and his bare staging effectively captures the prison-like confinement of the boot camp.
Meanwhile, a more experimental show recently entertained a small group of adventurous theater goers at The Gold Mine Saloon in the French Quarter. Jose Torres Tama lives in New Orleans, and until a few years ago, he was very much a presence on the local scene with his performance art. Now, he spends much of his time touring his shows around the United States and sometimes in foreign lands.
Temple of Chance, Tama's most recent solo piece, began with some marvelous a capella singing by Claudia Copeland. Tama, in a black costume, then took the stage and carried us on a verbal fantasia that seemed at times like an improvised ritual. The text never strayed too far from a darkly humorous malaise with the capitalist system and its "collateral damage," -- chiefly poverty, whether financial, spiritual or both. Kudos to David Brinks, who owns the Gold Mine, for presenting the show (which Tama plans to bring back in mid-December) and for the many cultural events he plans to offer in the future.
- Simply Simon: Richard Alexander Pomes as Eugene Morris Jerome and Bob Scully as Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey in Rivertown Rep's Biloxi Blues.