This review of Lowell Byers' Luft Gangster at the Sheen Center For Thought & Culture (Black Box Theater) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens 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
The atrocities of war take place on a macro and micro level. Sometimes the killer knows his victims personally and sometimes not as in when a soldier might fire across a battlefield or drop a bomb on an enemy target. Those targets might be military or industrial in nature but sometimes, especially during World War II, the goal might be to kill as many civilians as possible "to break the spirit" of the enemy. According to a recent estimate, 600,000 civilians died during the Allies' wartime raids on Germany, including 76,000 children. In July 1943, 45,000 civilians perished in Hamburg in a single night. I am not even mentioning Allied bombing raids in other occupied countries or the "take no prisoners" policy of our own "Uncle Joe." When you add the Holocaust and the Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the equation, I am sure you get my point - War Is Hell!
Louis "Lou" Fowler, a United States Army Air Corps waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator, who was originally from Columbia, South Carolina, was shot down over Yugoslavia in March 1944 during a routine bombing mission. He injured his leg and was initially aided by one of Tito's Partisans before being captured by the Nazis. He was eventually moved to a POW camp in Heydekrug, East Prussia called Stalag Luft VI, which one prisoner called "the sixth circle of hell." He was held a prisoner for over a year before being relocated in February 1945 due to the advancement of Soviet troops on the Eastern Front. His experiences there are reflected in Luft Gangster, an intense wartime drama written by Lowell Byers, Lou Fowler's cousin, who does a fine job of bringing the experiences of his character to life. Ralph Byers, Lowell's father, plays Lou Fowler's father in the play as well as the Camp Commander. Both Byers are exceptionally talented actors who fully deserve to have been cast in these roles. Austin Pendleton's direction is a big part of why this production has been universally applauded by critics and audiences alike.
Andy Truschinski's standout performance as Werner, a Camp Guard, highlights a challenge most characters in this play ultimately face. Werner, who at first treats Lou Fowler as just another American prisoner of war, eventually gets to know him on a more personal level and starts to see him as a fellow human being. He even shares with the POWs the type of women he likes and his hopes for the future. Gabe Bettio, who is quite believable as Otto, another Camp Guard, starts out equally distant but, in time, shows Lou Fowler pictures of his family and brings him a harmonica so he can play Lili Marlene on it. Otto even brings Lou extra food and shares with him some reservations he has about the policies of Adolf Hitler. How do the Allied POWs return these kindnesses? In the case of Werner, they deliberately get him drunk with Prune Jack, which eventually leads to a dereliction of duty resulting in his execution. The POWs, including Lou Fowler, use Otto's friendliness against him guaranteeing that he, too, will not see the end of the war. Eric T. Miller convincingly portrays Bill, a smooth-talking wheeler-dealer who gets Lou vinegar to treat his injured leg. Lou argues against a prison break because they are in East Prussia (present-day Lithuania) with nowhere to go but when Bill raises the same concerns, he is suspected of being a German-American placed among the prisoners as a spy. A British POW in Lou's barracks strangles Bill to death on the mere suspicion he is working with the Germans. As for Bill being a German spy, he may or may not have been an informant but I did look it up and there are potato farms in the Houston metropolitan area.
As for the German Camp Commander's treatment of the POWs, he certainly used every psychological trick in the book to get newly captured prisoners to share information on potential Allied targets and plans. He tells Lou of the mass murders that occurred as a result of Allied bombing raids and tells him the war is over for him, so why shouldn't he try to make his life as a POW as tolerable as possible. He also tells him, "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 and only gives his name, rank, and serial number. Still, the Camp Commander does not execute Lou and he stops his guards from engaging in excessive violence against him and the other prisoners. In fact, the Camp Commander only ordered the death of two POWs who were found in a tunnel they were digging in an attempt to escape. You will have to see the play to learn of the unusual manner in which they were flushed out of the tunnel. Even when three prisoners who did escape were recaptured, they were not executed but were instead placed in solitary confinement. The script offers us glimpses into some of the memories and hallucinations the prisoners experience when suffering extreme deprivation and contemplating whether they even wished to live or die. Lou described himself as a "man of faith" who didn't think it was his time to die. Bill's witty retort was, "I just hope they agree!"
The name of play arises from the fact it had been generally rumored that some United States airmen were former prison convicts. Hence, Luft (translation: Air) Gangsters! Casandera M.J. Lollar is the only female cast member, who does a fine job playing both Lou's mother and girlfriend, although I must confess the part of Lou's mom is not a very challenging role. Paul Bomba brings some comic relief to the play as Vinny, an Italian-American POW who claimed he proved to the Germans he wasn't Jewish by dropping his trousers. It's Vinny who spends his time making Prune Jack, while the British POWs (Noel Joseph Allain as Randall, and Seth James as Peter) spend their time making a radio that will pick up BBC transmissions so they don't always have to listen to Axis Sally. The final cast member is Sean Hoagland, a charismatic actor who plays Joe, a clean-cut intense POW who actually knows how to speak German. How ironic it is that Joe is the first person to suspect others of being a spy when you might think he should be the first person who is suspected in light of his ability to speak German fluently. But confusion and contradictions of this sort are part of the landscape of what takes place during war and how that war affects those caught up in it.
I highly recommend you see Luft Gangster. It is a riveting and intense drama that reveals the tedium of being a prisoner of war and the different psychological and emotional coping mechanisms each individual POW uses to get through the experience. Some accept their fate and hope to survive until the end of the war while others make plans to escape, even though realistically such a breakout has almost no chance of success. It is equally interesting, as reflected in this play, that the German Guards and Officers also look forward to the end of the war when they hopefully can return to their normal lives and family. Luft Gangster builds in intensity and keeps the audience totally engrossed in the story and the ultimate fate of Lou Fowler, who must make an extremely difficult moral decision near the end that may still haunt him to this day. One minor quibble is that if Lou Fowler freed himself during one of the Long Marches, it would have been a Soviet soldier, and not an American, that would have come upon him.
Luft Gangster is a must see! 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/