[Note: This is a review of the 2013 production which had most of the same cast.]Luft Gangster, presented by the Nylon Fusion Theatre Company, is a new play by Lowell Byers, which travels the well-trodden territory of gruesome tales of prisoners of war, most popularly, if not seriously (or accurately), exposed in 1951’s Stalag 17 by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski and the silly TV sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes. Luft Gangster is a decidedly serious and historical take on the subject, based on the real experiences of Byers’ cousin Louis Fowler.
Luft Gangster begins with a short, sad prelude. Lou (acted by the playwright) sits with his dying mother (Casandera M.J. Lollar) before he goes off to war. He has wide-eyed expectations of serving his country and coming back to his South Carolina hometown and his girl. By the next scene he is bailing out of an airplane only to be tended to by a kindly Russian peasant (Ms. Lollar, again) before the Nazis take over the town and drag him to a Stalag prison camp where the rest of the play unfolds in a series of heartbreakingly grisly scenes. These include onstage murders, details of dental hygiene and wound care, eating disgusting food, camaraderie, tests of loyalty, escape plans (foiled and otherwise) and a two-hour test of the actors and the audiences’ power of endurance.
On the grim set of wooden chairs, benches and crude fences designed by Tijana Bjelajac, the play unfolds in what seems like real time, although it actually covers more than a year. The utter attention to every detail from clothing (designed by Debbi Hobson) to the accents of each character is impeccable. The intensity of the acting, even at an early performance is a credit to the direction of Austin Pendleton. Pendleton draws out from this game cast all the tiny details of behavior and the gradual strengthening and sudden violent disintegration of friendships. How the prisoners cope with both the everyday degradations and their plans for the future keeps interest from flagging. It also helps keep the dreariness from being overwhelming.
It is fascinating to watch Lowell Byers face his unfounded, country boy optimism as he is confronted with the brutal realities of his situation. That Byers’ Lou never completely succumbs, despite having to perform several vile acts, makes him the moral center of the play that pushes the idea of morality to the extremes. In addition, his exacting research, based on his cousin’s travails, pays off in the complexity of his writing.
The other prisoners are played by Noel Joseph Allain as the Englishman Randall who is the default leader of the motley crew; Paul Bomba as the requisite “ethnic” Vinny; Christopher Burke as the possibly treacherous Rawlings; Kyle DeSpiegler as the stalwart Joe; and Seth James as the boyishly sympathetic Peter. They each create strong, subtle characters that also help keep the obvious dreariness at bay.
The three Nazis are played by Eyal Sherf as Werner who reveals way too much after drinking one of the prisoner’s homemade brew; Gabe Bettio as Otto who actually tries to befriend Lou; and Ralph Byers as several higher ranking Germans who are suave and insinuating. All three manage to make these villains substantial and three-dimensional.
Lollar plays the mother, the Russian girl and, in a daydream sequence, Lou’s hometown girl, Glennie. She makes each of these characters sparklingly clear and sympathetic.
Luft Gangster may be hard to sit through but it is worth it, even if there are times that make you look away. This is a well-written, tough play dealing powerfully with a tough subject. The ensemble acting is exemplary.
Luft Gangster (return engagement extended through April 30, 2017)
Nylon Fusion Theater Company & Cloverleaf Collective
The Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.sheencenter.org
Running Time: two hours with one intermission