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So, this is the Army

Part two of Neil Simon’s Eugene trilogy

Cassie Jo Fastabend (Daisy) and Drew Bates (Eugene) from the Lakewood Playhouse Production of Biloxi Blues. Photo credit: Lakewood Playhouse

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Last year, Lakewood Playhouse produced Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first part of Neil Simon's autobiographical "Eugene Trilogy." Now they follow up with the second part of the trilogy, Biloxi Blues, with the same director, John Olive, and the same lead actor/narrator, Drew Bates as Eugene Jerome. In Brighton Beach, Eugene was a 15-year-old kid bedeviled by the beginnings of puberty with three goals in life: to play major league baseball, to see a naked woman, and to become a writer. Now, in Biloxi Blues he is a young Army recruit in basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi. He is still determined to become a writer, and he wants more than anything to fall in love and to lose his virginity, preferably but not necessarily with the same woman. You'll have to watch the play to see which of these goals he achieves and how.

(Reality check regarding the script: there is no Army base in Biloxi, the nearest one is Camp Shelby, 70 miles to the north.)

New York Times theater critic Frank Rich heaped lavish praise on it in the mid-1980s, saying it was much better than Brighton Beach. I must disagree. I think Brighton Beach was much more down to earth and believable, although both have plenty of Simon's famous humor and humanity. In the first play in the trilogy, there was more Jewish humor and puberty jokes; in this one it is barracks humor, which does not go over as well in 2019 because it is crass and sexist.

Typical of plays and movies about basic training -- think Full Metal Jacket, No Time for Sergeants and An Officer and a Gentleman -- there is a hardnosed drill sergeant the recruits fear and ultimately love. At this camp it is Sgt. Toomey (John Munn). Also, typically, the genre has to include at least one misfit who doesn't belong in the Army. Here it is Arnold Epstein (George Blanchard), an intellectual who Eugene suspects is gay. The major conflict throughout is between Epstein and Sgt. Toomey, because Epstein, the true hero of the play, refuses to buckle under what he sees as Toomey's arbitrary and inhumane treatment of the recruits. The other major conflict comes to light when the men in the barracks sneak a peek at Eugene's personal journal, which includes his assessments of their personalities, much of which is significantly less than flattering.

Mostly handled with compassion and humor, the play deals with antisemitism and, somewhat less sensitively, with homophobia. And there is a love interest as Eugene comically visits a whore house and then meets and falls in love with Daisy (Cassie Jo Fastabend) at a USO dance.

Epstein is the most complex character in the play, and Blanchard captures the many aspects of his personality, from his sweetness and intelligence to his sometimes arrogance and snarkiness.

Bates' portrayal of Eugene is as likeable and humorous as it was in Brighton Beach. Believably five years older, his humanity shines through. Munn is outstanding as Sgt. Toomey. He looks the age and size for the part, and his bluster does not seem fake. His toupee is the mother of awful toupees. Fastabend is not on stage often, but when she is, she is marvelous as a young woman in love but constrained by the nuns at her Catholic school from expressing that love.

The other recruits are played by young actors, as they should be, but their relative inexperience shows. We see them straining to act their parts.

Lakewood Playhouse warns that the play includes "mature military language and conversations of an adult nature."

I would not be going too far out on a limb to presume Lakewood Playhouse is going to do the third part of the trilogy, Broadway Bound, in a coming season. It should be in the cards.

BILOXI BLUES, 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Oct. 6, $27, $24 military and seniors, $21 students and educators, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, 253.588.0042,

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