Biloxi Blues, a Neil Simon play performed by Yeshiva College Dramatics Society (YCDS) this spring, tells of the events that unfold after Eugene Morris Jerome, a young man from Brooklyn, enlists in the army at the end of World War Two. Eugene faces many challenges—a difficult commanding officer and social issues within his platoon—all while trying to pursue his passions and dreams. The play highlights deceit, bravery and sacrifice, and contains scenes that deal with deeper themes, like anti-Semitism and homosexuality. “I like to choose plays with substance, and this one definitely deals with issues still relevant today,” said Lin Snider, who has directed at YCDS for thirteen years.
The play is an ensemble, featuring several central actors. The opening scene dives straight into the action, with a group of newly recruited soldiers traveling to a boot camp in Biloxi for training. The humor between the men is instantly present as they joke and tease each other, all while Eugene is occasionally highlighted by spotlight to narrate and describe each of the characters, as he continues to do throughout the play.
Ezra Felder, a sophomore in his first year on campus, perfectly captured the innocence and naïveté of the young and inexperienced Eugene as a first time recruit in a large war. He captured the hope and idealism of a young boy in search of glory and love. Felder’s strongest moments were his spotlight soliloquies, in which the stage went dark and the light focused on him as he beautifully expressed either his feeling about a situation or background information about a character or scene.
The men arrive on base and are greeted by Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey (Yaacov Siev). Siev captures the commanding nature and aggressive persona of Toomey’s character, who effectively torments the new soldiers. He shouts into the faces of his men, commands 200 pushups from each of them and forces them to eat almost inedible food.
Arnold Epstein (David Cutler) is the only member of the platoon to reckon with the harsh, commanding sergeant. The tension between these two characters escalates as Sergeant Toomey begins to feel threatened and undermined by the clever, challenging Epstein. The dynamic between these men creates a sense of anticipation and anxiety as the audience watches Epsteins’ defiance and Toomey’s dramatic reactions. The tension is tangible and captivating, and ultimately culminates in a final scene where Epstein is victorious over Sergeant Toomey. Cutler excellently captures the cunning and somewhat arrogant nature of Epstein. His intelligence is apparent everywhere and he finds success and accomplishment with his refusal to succumb and shrink beneath the disciplinary forces at play.
I found myself genuinely captivated throughout the play, eager to see the story unfold. Each scene consists of its own significant event, and the characters feed off of each other very naturally and engagingly, each with their own unique and interesting personalities and styles. Chaviva Freedman, stage manager for YCDS, said, “This play touches on moments all of us go through today—a group of people that face struggles and have to work things out.”