Lowell Byers’s play Luft Gangster was inspired by the real-life story of Louis Fowler, a waist gunner during World War II. The play opens on a tender scene between Lou (played by Byers himself with a wonderful mix of stoicism and sincerity), and his mother, who is clearly sick or mentally ill. Louis’s father is long dead, and when his mother dies, he enlists to fight. His plane is shot down and he is captured and interrogated by the Nazis, but they don’t get a word out of him. At first he’s put in a makeshift holding cell where is joined by another POW, played with a wonderful earnestness by Eric T. Miller, who doubts they’ll get out alive. Lou tells him, “I don’t think it’s my time to go.” The POW retorts: “I just hope they know that.”
The atrocities committed during World War II by the Nazis are referred to in undertones. When Lou is transported to the camps, he asks, “What’s that smell?” Another POW answers, rhetorically, “You don’t know?” Murmurs from the audience indicate that we know—now—but like the surrounding villagers and even the Jews themselves who were taken to the camps, few actually knew there were gas chambers.
Austin Pendleton’s even touch as a director provides the right restraint and prevents the play from falling into melodrama and stereotypes. Other winning aspects of the play are the small stage and Tijana Bjelejac’s set of chairs and wooden slats that creates cramped and confined quarters for the POWs
The depiction of both American POWs and Nazis is well rounded, and undercuts some of the broader stereotypes. Instead, the play unearths the subtler terrors the POWs faced in internment, such as the language barrier. Nazi officers speak in German, which highlights the hair-trigger nature of their interactions. Neither officers nor POWs understand one another very well, and when the Germans bark orders, the POWs are sometimes slow to respond simply because they don’t understand what they’re supposed to do. This communications gap is brought to a tense (and humorous) light when Vinny, a POW from Brooklyn, played with a lighthearted wit by Paul Bomba, tells a story of being transported by train. At one point, Jewish prisoners escape, and the German prison guards line up everyone, including the POWs. Vinny voluntarily drops his pants to show he hasn’t been circumcised. “Thank God my mother gave birth to me at home,” he says. “If I had been born in the hospital, I’d be dead.”
Other hair-raising moments are the POWs’ inability to know who’s who. Between the language barrier and the tenuous nature of life in the camps, people grew paranoid. Some believed that even English speakers merited caution and could be Germans either born in America or naturalized citizens who had returned to fight for Germany. It was believed that they infiltrated camps to report back on their findings, leaving POWs in peril. For Rawlings (Eric T. Miller), a POW from a neighboring camp, an affable and helpful manner casts suspicion on him that proves dangerous. It’s an “us or them” mentality needed for survival.
There are some lighter moments, too, such as when Peter (Seth James), a British POW, proves desperate for a cup of tea. He makes a brew out of everything and anything he can find. At one moment, it’s dandelions. Later in the play, his desperation mounts and he makes tea with pine needles. One can only imagine the bitter and syrupy aftertaste of such a concoction.
Byers also draws the German officers as real people. In the opening, the Reich Security Guard (RSD) colonel (Ralph Byers, who is the playwright's father), almost seems congenial when interrogating Lou. Otto (Gabe Bettio) whistles Lili Marlene, a song Lou knows. Lou tells Otto that if he brings him a harmonica, he’ll play the tune for Otto. Eventually they become friendly: they sing and play music together, and Otto shows Lou pictures of his wife and son. It humanizes Otto, yet it nearly becomes fatal for Lou’s own survival. When Werner (Andy Truschinski), agrees to have a drink, the prisoners ply him with a moonshine they’ve made out of plums. He doesn’t mind. He knows it as slivovitz, a kind of plum brandy produced in central and southeastern Europe. After Otto is good and drunk, they take advantage of the situation and sneak out to freedom. But, even on the road to freedom, the perils remain to the very end.
Nylon Fusion’s production of Luft Gangster plays at the Sheen Center (18 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10012) as part of its “War Is Hell” series through April 30. Performances are Wed.-Fri. at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and closing day, April 30, at 1 p.m. Tickets are $29–$32 and are now available online sheencenter.org/shows/luftgangster or by calling (866) 811-4111. Tickets may also be purchased at the theater half an hour prior to performance.