This review of Lowell Byers' Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center For Thought & Culture (Black Box Theater) was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Lowell Byers
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Sheen Center For Thought & Culture
Black Box Theater
18 Bleecker Street
New York, New York 10012
Luft Gangster returns to the Sheen Center after a few years with many of the same cast members who appeared in the 2013 production. The play entertained audiences then and still does while providing context and clarity on life within a World War II German Prisoner Of War (POW) camp. The play latches onto your attention early and doesn't let go. The gradual building of intensity through the first few scenes, and the smooth introduction of various characters, actors, and settings, draws the viewer into the life of the lead character, Lou Fowler, played by Lowell Byers. Additionally, the script, characterization, and portrayal of the roles allow one to imagine the circumstances clearly without the play resorting to overdone dialogue.
The play begins with Lou Fowler at the bedside of his dying and widowed mother. This is a little unclear because the set design employed chairs as props for both chairs and beds. Following his mother's death, Lou signs up for the United States Army Air Corps and is eventually shot down over Yugoslavia in March 1944. Lou bails out of a falling plane and suffers shrapnel wounds to his leg and injures his shoulder. He is rescued by a peasant woman before being captured by the Germans. During his first interrogation, we learn the Germans are interested in specific technical and tactical information about Lou's bomber and bombing target. They utilize various techniques to get him to talk including the use of German-American spies posing as prisoners to encourage "cooperation." The Germans remind Lou of the many Germans who lost their loved ones during Allied bombing raids that deliberately targeted civilians. One of the surprising factors of this part of the play is the vast amount of information the Germans already knew about Lou Fowler, including the names of his family members and where he grew up. It is unclear how they were able to link Lou to his information considering Lou lost his dog tags in North Africa. Lou answers the questions with just his name, rank, and identification number, and is eventually shipped to a POW camp named Stalag Luft VI.
Once Lou is at the POW camp, we are introduced to the remainder of the main characters in the form of other POWs. In total, there were two Brits - Randall, and Peter, as well as three Americans - Joe, Vinny, and Lou. While I can't say enough about the praiseworthy performance of Lowell Byers as Lou Fowler, the supporting cast was equally as impressive. Their ability to transition between different languages and effortlessly switch between roles built upon the intensity established by the circumstances of Lou's introduction. Ralph Byers, Lowell Byers' real life father, played a variety of German officers and did an especially brilliant job balancing intimidation with poise. Granted some of the characterizations were a little standard for World War II stories, however solid acting helped to create a sense of purpose to each character. Two of the best examples were Noel Joseph Allain as Randall and Paul Bomba as Vinny. They impressed with their consistent accents and ability to portray vivid personalities. Randall was a long term interned Brit who acted as domineering and self-righteous as one would expect. The gregarious New York Italian-American Vinny became the subject of suspicion for being a possible Jerry upon his introduction but later earned the trust of the rest of the group, especially when they started digging an escape tunnel.
Unfortunately, even after the group navigates the politics of the camp and fends off a potential German spy named Bill, the escape tunnel plan ends in the gruesome death of both Brits. Seth James' Peter provided the main comedic moments of the play with his various attempts to brew tea. In fact, the desperation of Peter to find a good tea highlighted the difficulty of life in the POW camp which was additionally emphasized through Lou's lagging leg injury and the discussion of eating charcoal. The group attempts a second escape using Vinny's Prune Jack, a home-brewed alcohol, which ends in the execution of Werner, a German officer, and solitary confinement for the remaining three Americans. During his time in solitary confinement, Lou hallucinates his family and friends, both living and dead. He snaps out of the hallucination to learn from Otto, a guard he has befriended, that the prisoners are about to go on a death march as the Russian forces are closing in. On this march, the three Americans devise a final escape plan, which involves a moral dilemma for Lou, and great risk for all three. Afterward and with his last breaths of life, Lou is rescued by an American soldier.
Lou Fowler is portrayed as a decent fellow who steers clear of the more questionable moral decisions made by the other prisoners. For example, Lou doesn't interfere when Bill is killed by a Brit on the mere suspicion of being a German spy. In addition, when Otto needs to be sacrificed, Lou seemed torn up by the decision but how much resistance could Lou have offered when Otto stood between them and possible freedom? Interestingly, despite his bum leg, Lou was the only one to escape of the five POWs portrayed within the play.
Luft Gangster kept things engaging on both a personal and dramatic level. The actors and the detail provided by the set and costume designers brought a gloomy subject to life. While a very small portion of the story seemed cliche, the truth is that we've probably just seen and heard a lot of stories about World War II at this point. This intense play moved fast. At points, time and scene switches were hard to catch while at other times it was very clear. Despite various time leaps, the play is fairly easy to follow due to its linear plot. Lou Fowler was a real person, and the play is written by Lowell Byers, his cousin, who also plays the lead role. Apparently, few, if any, artistic liberties were taken, so this is a true story of a World War II veteran's escape from certain death acted out over 70 years later by a much younger cousin. I'd recommend seeing this play especially if you're interested in World War II or gritty stories. It plays through April 30, 2017 at the Sheen Center. Tickets cost $29-$32 and can be purchased by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or by visiting https://sheencenter.org/shows/luftgangster/