DramaNew YorkOff-BroadwayReview

Luft Gangster – Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, New York

Writer: Lowell Byers
Director: Austin Pendleton
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell

In 2009, actor/playwright Lowell Byers met his cousin Louis Fowler, a U.S. Army Air Corps veteran who survived internment at a German P.O.W. camp during World War II. The accounts that Fowler shared with Byers are the basis for his play Luft Gangster, presented by Nylon Fusion Theatre Company and Cloverleaf Collective as part of the Sheen Center’s War Is Hell series.

The play follows Lou, played by Byers, as he’s forced to bail out of his B24 bomber after it’s hit by German fire. Lou is captured by the Nazis and interrogated; when he will not reveal any information about his mission, he’s transported to a P.O.W. camp, where he and his fellow captives are told, “The war is over for you.” They are encouraged to wait patiently. Lou and his fellow Americans, Vinny (Paul Bomba) and Joe (Sean Hoagland), meet Peter (Seth James) and Randall (Noel Joseph Allain), Brits who warn them to be on their guard at all times, as the Germans have spies among the prisoners. Lou’s faith in humanity is tested as he watches friends die, and spends time in solitary confinement, a.k.a. The Cooler.

Luft Gangster is no small undertaking, and it’s clear early on that it’s a labor of love. It’s far from perfect, with some confusing choices in both staging and script. Some scenes, like an early moment with Lou and his dying mother, don’t move the narrative forward. The play’s convention of showing the passage of time by having actors simply say “two hours later” or “three weeks after that” makes it difficult to really clock how much time is passing; while that might be the point—days in the camp bleed into one another as prisoners follow the same routine day after day—it distracts us from how much time it takes for alliances to form and suspicions to build. Lowell Byers is extremely close to this material. He’s telling his cousin’s story as both actor and playwright, and his own father, Ralph Byers, appears as a camp officer and as a fever dream of Lou’s father. One can’t help but wonder if this script might have benefited from some distance from the material.

Despite its shortcomings, Luft Gangster is worth the time. The cast gives strong, moving performances and the design team, especially sound designer Jeanne Travis, does a fine job of creating the world of the play. It’s especially commendable that while Byers’s script could stand some trimming, it does not devolve into hyper-sentimentality the way that many Greatest Generation narratives do. The prisoners in the play are well aware that they have it far better than the “enemies of the Reich” sentenced to concentration camps. There is no skirting the fact that the Americans were taken prisoner while carrying out bombing missions that killed German civilians. And this play certainly puts to rest any idea that “the cooler” in a P.O.W. camp bears any resemblance to Steve McQueen tossing a baseball at the wall of his comfortable cell in The Great Escape.

Runs until 30 April 2017

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