The gentle humor and perceptive observations of human nature that make the best of Neil Simon's comedies such a pleasure come through clearly in the Little Theatre of Alexandria's new production of his "Biloxi Blues" which opened Saturday night.
The play is well known because of the movie version which starred Matthew Broderick. Indeed, Broderick is identified with the role of the narrator, a young writer trying to survive boot camp while his drill sergeant tries to make sure his young charges are prepared for the rigors of combat in a world at war.
The role of the young man falls to Matthew Argersinger, who was last seen at this theater in its production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" two years ago. Then, he was performing a small role in the shadow of the incandescent performances of Adrianna Hardy and Carla Scopelitis. Now he steps into the limelight in the lead, and he is impressive. He avoids the all-too-dangerous trap of appearing to impersonate Broderick. Instead, his straight-forward performance, free of idiosyncrasies, makes the role into the solid foundation for the entire show.
Argersinger isn't the only actor to impress, however. Ken Clayton is the drill sergeant who cares enough for the kids entrusted to him that he gives them what today would probably be called unremitting tough love. His performance manages to let the audience see the affection and emotion which his character hides from the troops with bluster, swagger and discipline.
The actors playing the rest of the platoon of soldiers are well cast and well directed as individuals and as a group. Making his debut as a director at the Little Theatre is Howard Vincent Kurtz, who has also designed both the set and the costumes.
KURTZ' SET seems simple but is actually a series of elegant solutions to production problems. The play takes place in multiple locations, making significant demands on a designer. Kurtz places the barracks set at the rear of the stage with two tracks on the floor on which set pieces slide on and off to represent a train compartment, a USO dance, a house of prostitution and other settings. The entire collection is framed in wooden slats similar to the construction of temporary war-time buildings.
As a director, Kurtz has unified his cast into an ensemble that plays group scenes well. The barracks bull sessions so typical of young recruits feel natural and their reactions to the "in your face" dressings down the sergeant puts them through seem very real indeed. What is more, each of the young men develops a distinct and believable personality, especially the character of the Jewish private played by Michael Pranikoff.
Simon's play isn't exclusively male, however. There are two women in the cast and both actresses add very good performances to the piece. Anne Marie Pinto has the larger of the two roles, that of the prostitute the troops visit on their first weekend pass. Pinto makes this woman a sympathetic and even endearing character. Even more likable is Jean Barnwell as the girl at a USO dance. She perks up the proceedings just enough to set up the drama of the crisis to come.
The Little Theatre of Alexandria is known as one of the region's finer community theaters. Three of their seven productions of last year earned awards in the Washington Area Community Theatre Honors program, the only company to have that many productions win awards in the same year. With this production of "Biloxi Blues" they continue to meet a high standard for quality.