One attends a community theater production of Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues hoping to see pleasant performances and, if you're a Simon fan, expecting to have a few laughs. One does not go expecting a powerhouse performance by a principal player -- a performance so thrilling that it completely overshadows the production itself and its other leads, both of whom also make their mark in this tidy little presentation.
Yet that is precisely what one gets with Desert Stages' production of the second in Simon's "Eugene Trilogy" of plays (The first is Brighton Beach Memoirs from 1983; the last, 1986's Broadway Bound): A stunning performance by Todd Michael Isaac, who turns the secondary role of Epstein into a sensation. Isaac's performance starts small, with a handful of casually delivered wisecracks that build into a bravura of confrontation and emotion. He hasn't been seen on stage since an equally superb portrayal in the same company's production of The Pillowman, a few years back, but this performance -- tense, stylish, slightly unhinged -- was worth the wait.
Isaac's is a generous performance that in no way detracts from the affable clowning of Ryan Toro, as sweet-natured Eugene, or Rick Davis as a sadistic sergeant out to break the spirits of his recruits. Both snatch up wordy ramblings and create credible moments of comedy and mounting tension with equal ease.
Director Mark-Alan C. Clemente has staged the action beautifully on set designer Paul Filan's simple, barren set from which bunks and benches and train seats cleverly fold down, and on which Todd Michael Isaac walks off with another play. Biloxi Blues closes this Sunday; don't miss it.
Biloxi Blues continues through Sunday, Augsut 10, at 4720 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Call 480-483-1664 or visit www.desertstages.org.