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Friday, August 27, 2021

Boot Camp Blues

From the Theater Vault Dept.: Here’s a memory-lane piece that reminds me of folks in the area theater community who became friends, and one – the immensely talented Doug de Lisle – who died far too young. As productions reawaken, here’s a reminder of who was doing what 34 years ago.


COMMUNITY THEATER is often more of a collaboration between audience and actors than professional productions: you find yourself rooting for your neighbors to pull off the difficult masquerade onstage without too many flubs or departures from character. In Doug de Lisle's production of “Biloxi Blues,” which opened Friday evening at the Albany Civic Theatre, there are uncommonly long stretches where no such silent cheering is needed: the worthy cast acts with bravura assurance, and the only intrusions upon your suspended disbelief come from the author.

Doug de Lisle   
Neil Simon wrote the play as the middle of an autobiographical trilogy; following its successful Broadway run it has burst upon the local scene. ACT’s is but one of many that have played or play in the area; if you plan to see just one, see this one.

We have a collection of characters in boot camp, including our simple Simon hero, Eugene Jerome, played by Robert Weidert with a very authentic Brighton Beach dialect and just the right kind of Harold Lloyd-ish innocence.

The cheerful problems of Sergeant Bilko’s day, when TV-writer Simon trained for this kind of sit-com, have been replaced with the more explicit stuff we now expect from the barracks. And it’s funnier.

Gregory Bradley, as the pushups-happy drill sergeant, is rather more youthful than we’d expect this career man to be, but he otherwise gives a splendid performance as he goes up against the half-dozen recruits bunking with Eugene.

The biggest thorn in his side is the uncooperative and much too intelligent Arnold Epstein; in Steven Hurd’s portrayal, he almost steals the show. It is a virtuoso performance, with timing, delivery, movement all in place.

As tubby loudmouth Wykowski, Paul C. Pape is all brawn and xenophobia, the aggressive, self-appointed leader of the group. The others, played by Fred Larison, Tony Pallone and Kent J. Hanson, function with the easy grace of a good repertory company, each outstanding in his own way.

The two women in the cast are simplistically divergent in characterization: Marlene Goudreau is the dark-haired whore who plays against Weidert in a scene that seems to be a staple of this sort of story; like any morally questionable character, it looks like a fun one to play.

Of course, there’s the blonde innocent, Eugene’s first inamorata; Sara Ruckerstuhl plays the part with a fabulously vintage-Hollywood flair, which is completely appropriate to a character that was invented on the screen.

Unlike the standard Simon, this isn’t a gatling-gun of gags: he wants to develop the characters more, and draw scenes out of characters. But there’s a predictable quality overall, a Van Johnson bootcamp buddies picture brought into the 80s and dressed a little differently.

What gives this production life is the acting talent and director de Lisle’s ability to cultivate a scene’s maximum potential for laughs. The pacing is remarkably consistent, never rushed, but never flagging in energy.

Set designer Duncan Morrison put up a revolving unit that switches between barracks and elsewhere with an ease you don’t expect on a community stage; it’s nice to see that ACT continues to innovate, continues to improve.

BILOXI BLUES by Neil Simon. Directed by Doug de Lisle for Albany Civic Theatre. Assistant director, Lisa Burns. Production managers, Lou Jordan and Don Ruggaber. Set design by Duncan Morrison. Costume design by Jenniver Sparano. Performances at the Albany Civic Theatre, 235 Second Ave., Albany, through Nov. 8.

– Schenectady Gazette, 26 October 1987

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