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THEATER REVIEW 'BILOXI BLUES' : Salute to Comedy : Ventura College produces the second of Neil Simon's autobiographical trilogy this year. 'Broadway Bound' is upcoming.


Of all the plays in Neil Simon's autobiographical trilogy, "Biloxi Blues" is the one best suited to a college production: Costumes are relatively easy, and virtually all the characters fall into a college-level age range.

The play is based on Simon's own Army experience and takes place during a 10-week basic training session in Mississippi.

It is that most durable of dramatic formats: a service comedy. If a writer can't get laughs out of life in the military, that writer is probably incapable of getting laughs.

Nicely mounted and decently acted, the current Ventura College production is the second in the theater department's presentation of the series, which also includes "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and the upcoming "Broadway Bound."

Like the Conejo Players, a Thousand Oaks-based community theater group, Ventura College is producing one play each year, in sequence.

(A Hollywood group recently produced all three in repertory. Undeniably a more challenging proposition, it does keep the audience from waiting a year to find out what happens next.)

Played against one of Willy Eck's typically impressive sets, this "Biloxi" generally rings true: You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll all but taste the creamed chipped beef on toast.

Judy Garey, who directed, drove a 1987 Santa Barbara City College production of "Biloxi" to the American College Theater Festival finals.

A couple of scenes in the Ventura College version fairly sparkle: Eugene's encounter with a local hooker (well-played by Maqueda Rubio) comes to mind. And the first encounter between Sgt. Toomey (the expert James Braddock) and his callow platoon has the well-timed zip of "Who's on First."

Ron Feltner stars as Simon's alter-ego Eugene Morris Jerome, an aspiring writer. Feltner plays Eugene as less of a nebbish than he's often portrayed, which is a nice change.

This Eugene could grow up to marry Marsha Mason.

Marvin Ramos plays Jerome's soul mate, Arnold Epstein. The only other Jew in the platoon, Arnold is an intellectual and even more of a wiseacre than Eugene.

The rest of the platoon, a typical ethnic mishmash that, being in the 1943 Army, excludes men of color, includes Bruce Bradley, Travis Greer, Tony Marciel and Matthew Schodorf.

In a particularly contrived sequence, Eugene falls in love at a USO dance. When he meets Catholic school student Daisy Hannigan (winningly portrayed by Kirsten Soler), the tone smacks false, and the play threatens to turn into a 1943 update of "Abie's Irish Rose."

The printed program credits several military consultants, all of whom must have cringed when they saw these boots' long haircuts.

Apparently, there's only so far these college students will go for the sake of art.


"Biloxi Blues" concludes this weekend at the Ventura College Theater, Loma Vista Road just west of Day Road, Ventura. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. General admission tickets are $7, $5 students, Ventura College staff and senior citizens. Further discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. For information, call 654-6459.

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