Taking on ‘Biloxi Blues’

“Biloxi Blues” is one of Neil Simon’s most personal plays
Sawyer Avery is directing and acting in a staged reading of “Biloxi Blues” at Guild Hall. T.E. McMorrow

    Sawyer Avery, who is directing as well as playing the lead in Tuesday night’s staged reading of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, has a gravitas about him unusual for a 21-year-old. He loves sitting in cramped coffeehouses, talking theater and art. He attends two to three plays a week in New York. After sitting down Saturday morning at Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee on West 10th Street in New York, he was on his way to go museum-hopping with his girlfriend, starting at the Museum of Modern Art.

    He is serious about his passion, which is theater. “I love to act. I’ll do what I can to get my fix,” he said. He talks about theater the way a junkie talks about smack. Sitting in the back of an acting class is a high for Mr. Avery, whether he is working on a scene, or just watching, soaking in the work of the actors around him.

    Maybe you can blame his parents for his habit. When he was 15, Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg gave their youngest child a gift: Enrollment in an acting workshop at Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica, Calif. “I started going every Wednesday night,” he recalled. “Sometimes I would work on scenes, sometimes I would sit in the back, drink coffee, and watch other actors work.”

    He quickly knew what he wanted, and he knew where he needed to go to get it — New York. “I left home when I was 18,” he said.

    After three years, though he returns to the West Coast from time to time, he is beginning to see himself as a New Yorker. “Somebody once said, ‘New York is steaming hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter, and very expensive, but I wouldn’t live any place else,’ ” Mr. Avery said.

    At the same time, he sees a future for theater work for himself on the South Fork. “The great part about working out there is that you get to work on your craft, while not having the pressure of Manhattan,” he said.

    He uses yoga to keep himself centered spiritually as well as physically.

    He was accepted into the Atlantic Repertory Theater’s conservatory when he came to New York. After completing four of five semesters at the conservatory, he was cast in “Belgrade Trilogy” by Biljana Sbrljanovi at the 4th Street Theater in late 2012.

    In November, he appeared in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” directed by Joe Minutillo at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. It was a strong ensemble cast. The experience, particularly Mr. Minutillo’s work with the cast, made a deep impression on Mr. Avery.

    “I learned a lot about acting,” Mr. Avery said. “It was incredible. I really enjoyed it. I felt the cast was family. I think that feeling should be in every production. I think that is the director’s responsibility. Joe set up an environment where we could laugh and cry.” It was an experience that piqued Mr. Avery’s interest in trying his hand at directing.

    He was, at the time, working on a scene from “Biloxi Blues” with his acting coach, Larry Moss. He works with Mr. Moss whenever he can. Mr. Avery brought a copy of the script for “Biloxi Blues” to rehearsal one day, and got into a discussion about it with a fellow cast member, Josh Gladstone. Mr. Gladstone, who is the artistic director of the John Drew, was in the process of setting up a new program designed to allow performing artists the space to spread their wings and experiment. A reading of “Biloxi Blues,” directed by Mr. Avery, seemed a perfect fit.

  c. It is the middle of a semi-autobiographical trilogy that follows Eugene Morris Jerome from his teenage years (“Brighton Beach Memoirs”) to his days in basic training during World War II (“Biloxi Blues”) to finding early success as a comedy writer (“Broadway Bound”). Matthew Broderick created Eugene in all three plays, making it a unique work in Broadway history. Usually, actors outgrow a part. In Mr. Broderick’s case, he grew through the part, over the course of the mid-1980s.

     Several elements of the play caught Mr. Avery’s eye. “My favorite plays are the ones that are serious, but the comedy comes out through the urgency of the drama. ‘Biloxi Blues’ has a great combination of comedy and drama,” Mr. Avery said.

    Another element that attracted him to the piece is its setting in the World War II years, coming off, as he is, from a production of “Anne Frank,” set in Holland during the Holocaust. This is another view of the war, as seen from across the ocean.

    Because the character of Eugene is essentially onstage throughout the play, Mr. Avery felt he needed someone else to be his eyes. That job is going to Megan Minutillo, Mr. Minutillo’s daughter. She made an impression on Mr. Avery when he saw a cabaret show she had put together in New York with some friends.

    The cast for the reading comes from several places. For many of them, this is a chance to experiment, as well. Chloe Dirksen, for example, who played the very pulled together character of Miep in “Anne Frank” with panache, here will be reading the part of Rowena, a prostitute. Jessica Mortellaro, who played the title role in that production, is reading the part of Daisy on Tuesday. Christopher Imbrosciano, who played the title role in last year’s production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” at the John Drew, is in the cast, as are other actors from both “Anne Frank” and “Cripple,” and two more who are recent graduates of New York University’s theater program.

    Mr. Avery doesn’t have a roadmap for the rehearsal process, other than the play, itself. The company is getting together for about four hours on Sunday to get to know each other and do a read-through, then will do another four-hour session the next day. Tuesday will be lighter, with the reading that night at 7:30 at the John Drew. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed, for what is not a performance, but rather an experiment in the theatrical process.