Lowell Byers' absorbing wartime drama Luft Gangster opens with the cheery melodies of such 1940's tunes as Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. These distinctly American classics were needed to raise spirits during some very tense times, and to distract the masses from a not-so-happy reality: War is Hell. In the long saga of World War II, Hell was sometimes a place on earth-- such as a prisoner of war (POW) camp. Such was the case with Louis "Lou" Fowler, an airman from South Carolina whose extraordinary true story of survival is as provocative and compelling as anything that Hollywood could create. In March 1944, while on a bombing mission, Fowler’s B-24 was hit by enemy flak. His crew was ordered to bail out. Fowler's leg was wounded, but he survived-- only to be taken as a POW by Nazi Germany. He'd be held in captivity for 18 months. The story of Lou Fowler, now 93, is vividly brought to life in Luft Gangster, currently enjoying a revival at New York City's Sheen Center and directed with unflinching yet graceful flair by Austin Pendleton.
The play opens with Lou (Lowell Byers) speaking to his ill and frail mother. It turns out to be their last conversation. Soon afterward, we see the ambitious, harmonica-playing 18-year old being accepted into the U.S. Air Force and being promised the fruits of glory. Fast forward two years, and reality soon brings a more tragic pathway: Now a Sergeant, Fowler is blindfolded and taken captive after surviving an aerial attack. A manipulative Nazi Colonel (Ralph Byers) tries to get Lou to exchange war secrets for much-needed medical care and food, while delivering lines (in a heavy German accent) like, "We don't have to win the war. We just have to 'not lose' it! Why sacrifice yourself for something that does not matter?" The airman resists. Lou then finds himself in a POW camp called Stalag Luft VI-- or, as one character puts it, "the sixth circle of hell". He is held with Joe (Sean Hoagland), a cool-as-a-cucumber fellow American; and two Brits: the priggish Randall (Noel Joseph Allain) and the more subdued Peter (Seth James). Joining this fortuitous brotherhood of sorts is a fifth prisoner, a loquacious Italian-American named Vinny (Paul Bomba). Under constant watch and unsure about their fate, the five men do their best to occupy their time: Vinny concentrates on brewing an intoxicant called "prune jack". Peter and Randall try to pick up the BBC with a makeshift antenna while making tea from pine needles. All five must stay wary of the so-called "goons": Nazi-sympathizing German-Americans posing as POW's to probe for information. Most importantly, these young men are plotting their escape...
The prisoners' efforts to flee, in fact, becomes the nail-biting drama of Luft Gangster. The first attempt at liberation has tragic effects for two of the characters. Their subsequent "Plan B" will keep the audience at the edge of their seat with its tension, as well as inspiring some sitcom-style hilarity-- thanks to Vinny's "prune jack" and the supremely comedic talents of Andy Truschinski as an unsuspecting Nazi guard. The third and final attempt at escape by the remaining three characters-- and the complex pretzel of moral contortion that accompanies it-- is no less than harrowing to watch. Subject matter aside, playwright Byers finds humor in a hopeless place. In one scene, Vinny talks about how, when accused of being Jewish by the Nazis, he resorted to "dropping trou" to... well, prove that he wasn't. The occasional Brit-versus-"Yank" verbal jabs are also a guilty pleasure. Lighthearted relief aside, however, the uncertain fate of all the characters hangs over the setting like a raven perching in a bare tree: In one scene, the naive Lou can't make out the strange smell and the snow-like ashes in the air nearby. He learns what we've already figured out: He's witnessing the human ovens designed for Nazi Germany's "undesirables".
Luft Gangster becomes more riveting and engrossing as it progresses, slowly revealing its emotional center and taking great care in its character development-- particularly the main character of Lou and his fellow POW's. Playing double duty as the play's author and as performer, Lowell Byers is particularly excellent in the lead. The other Byers in the cast, Ralph, plays two very different roles (Nazi officer and Lou's father) so effectively that it's hard to believe it's the same actor. As one of the play's most complex characters, Gabe Bettio as Otto gives a tragically endearing performance. Eric T. Miller plays a smooth-talking camp wheeler-dealer who may or may not be a "goon", and then re-emerges at the end to play a liberating American soldier. He gives both characters, different as they are, the same superficially cocksure charm. Rounding out the cast is the magnetic Casandera M.J. Lollar, giving the play a shot of much-welcome female energy in the otherwise testosterone-heavy cast.
Luft Gangster is guaranteed to captivate the audience. The fact that it's faithfully translated from a true story, however, really... shall we say, "brings it home".
Luft Gangster, presented by Nylon Fusion Theatre Company and Cloverleaf Collective, plays through Sunday, April 16, 2017 at Sheen Center Black Box Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, New York City. Visit www.SheenCenter.org/shows/LuftGangster for more information.
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