Geva seems committed to producing Neil Simon's "BB" trilogy of autobiographical plays, starting this year with a splendid January production of Brighton Beach Memoirs and now topping that with a flawless Biloxi Bluesto open the fall season. Both cast Dennis Staroselsky as Simon's alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome. I hope to see him next year in that role in the third comedy, Broadway Bound.
Autobiographical, these three plays mix bits of the playwright's own life with fictional embellishments, just as they mix some of his warmest comedy with more honest depth of feeling and thought than we find in his earlier gag-filled hit shows. They are also rich in period flavor, a quality that Tim Ocel has nailed perfectly in the two that he's directed thus far. Ocel has also softened the hard edge of the original Broadway production of Biloxi Blues to bring it an unsentimental but affectionate nostalgia that is very endearing.
At the end of the play, Eugene speaks of their departed antagonist, the mad disciplinarian Sgt. Toomey. He notes that they actually miss him and says, "One should never underestimate the stimulation of eccentricity." Lou Sumrall hasn't the vocal chops to match the 1985 Broadway original, Geneseo graduate William Sadler's dynamic, stentorian Toomey. But Sumrall's virile sergeant is also intimidating and an honest, complex person --- unfairly competitive and punitive, but basically decent. And he avoids the creepy psychosis of Christopher Walken's weird portrayal in the 1988 film.
Playing off him ideally is Fred Berman, who embodies the equally unbending, intellectual, Jewish gadfly Arnold Epstein as well as I've seen the role handled. Berman gets the annoying, witty, and laughably nerdy qualities of Eugene's best friend in the army while never losing the innate strength of character that makes Eugene admire him.
I liked Coleman Zeigen's layered performance in Lobby Hero last season. And as Wykowski, Biloxi Blues' racist dumb hunk, he again offers a nifty transition when, stealing and reading Eugene's memoirs that call him a stupid animal, he tries to maintain his tough anger but softens in surprise when he comes to Eugene's comments about his bravery.
In fact, I like everyone in this cast. Sam Misner is priceless as the insecure Carney, who feels impelled to drive his platoon-mates crazy with constant crooning. Michael Hogan handles Selridge's mood swings with just a hint of danger. And Jim Butz keeps Hennesey under stone-faced control when his secret is exposed, until he bursts into tears with heartbreaking suddenness. Helen Mutch is a droll, savvy prostitute in Eugene's funny losing-virginity scene. Ivy Vahanian makes Eugene's first love a sweetly realistic daydream in another scene that is played more touchingly than I remember it.
And in the narrator-protagonist-spokesman-autobiographical role (which I describe that way to show that he carries these plays on his back), Staroselsky doesn't hit a false note. His accent and manner are right for Eugene. He's got Simon's comic rhythms down pat. And he seems to have matured a lot more than eight months since he played Eugene here in Brighton Beach Memoirs (mostly an indication of how much younger he had to play in that one).
B. Modern clothes everyone to look right for 1943. Kendall Smith's lighting is especially evocative throughout. And Gary Jacobs' atmospheric sets move from interiors of trains and barracks to a U.S.O. dance to a hilarious little decorated shack which quivers and bobs while the boys wait for Wykowski to finish with the prostitute inside. Simon describes the scene as "a small, tacky room in a cheap hotel," so I assume that this giggle was created by Ocel and Jacobs. It's one of many in this topnotch revival.
Biloxi Bluesby Neil Simon, directed by Tim Ocel, plays at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. through October 5. Tix: $15-$47.50. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org.