The horrors of war are something we all hope we never have to experience. Seeing your friend die right before your eyes, being so hungry that you can't tell day from night, never being able to completely trust people around you… All of these moments can make fascinating theatre, and they do in Nylon Fusion Theatre Company's latest offering LUFT GANGSTER, directed by Austin Pendleton (MTC's Choir Boy). Lowell Byers (who also wrote the piece) plays Lou, a young man who, after the death of his mother, enlists in the army and heads off into the horror that was WWII. His plane is shot down and he's captured by the Nazi's. He goes through several interrogations before bonding with other prisoners of war, both British and American Soldiers. Together they form an uneasy alliance as they try to make it from day to day without any source of rescue in sight.
Byers has crafted a powerful, moving, and even funny mediation on the horror of being a POW in WWII. The dialogue is natural and the scenes are thrilling, masterfully directed by Pendleton. The scenes flow with a natural authenticity, and never feel "stagey" or false. His portrayal of Lou is one (of many) highlights in the show. Byers, with his leading man looks, takes a tender approach to the role and you fully embrace his journey from naive man of faith to a man who's seen far too much for such a young age. The entire ensemble has standout moments, and every one of them bring a powerhouse performance. Noel Joseph Allain and Seth James play two British soldiers, and together present a powerful presence. The final scene in Act I is a thrilling, subtle gripping showcase for both of them. Their captors are played by Ralph Byers (Broadway's The Music Man), Gabe Bettio (Classic Stages Three Sisters), and Eyal Sherf (Pirates of Penzance). Each actor holds a terrifying quality, yet Bettio's Otto is also surprisingly tender, showing a man who is stuck in a world he doesn't want to necessarily be a part of. It's a subtle, wonderful performance. Sherf also brings welcome levity in a drunken scene, as does Paul Bomba (Beirut) who's character Vinny is the opposite of all of his quieter captors. An opening monologue about circumcision allows you to laugh, even in the face of such a horrible situation.
Yet for all of the good, there are a few bumps in the road. The luminous Casandra M.J. Lollar (The Runner Stumbles) is very affecting in all three roles she plays, but each one is sadly underwritten. I would have loved to have seen more of each of them, especially when played by an actress of this caliber. The show is in a very cramped space, which works for some scenes, but also severely limits other staging, something I hope can be touched on in the sure to be future incarnations. And even with a few abrupt moments in Act II (including an ending that is this close to working), it doesn't diminish the power of the play. Lou's story of a man who someone keeps surviving against all odds is a fascinating one (the play is written loosely based on Byers' own interviews with his cousin Lou Fowler) and with a larger space and, hopefully the same cast, the show can really soar.
Written by Lowell Byers Directed by Austin Pendleton Starring Lowell Byers, Noel Joseph Allain, Gabe Bettio, Paul Bomba, Christopher Burke, Ralph Byers, Kyel DeSpiegler, Seth James, Casandera M.J. Lollar, Eyal Sherf Content Warning: (Adult Language, Violence) Played at: The Strelsin Theatre @ Abington Theatre Company (312 W. 36th Street, NYC)
Mateo’s Grade: A-
Bottom Line: Haunting and moving, Byers, Pendelton, and Nylon Fusion have quite a power piece here. One that is sure to move you.