“Luft Gangster” Dramatizes World War II Hell

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Seth James, Noel Joseph Allain, Lowell Byers and Paul Bomba in Luft Gangster. Photo: Al Foote III.

In 1944, Columbia, SC native Lou Fowler (Lowell Byers), a gunner in the US Army Air Corps, is shot down in Europe. He’s apprehended by Nazi troops and sent to a detention camp, Stalag Luft VI — also called the “sixth circle of hell” by its inhabitants. Fowler’s leg injury might progress to gangrene, but the Commandant (Ralph Byers — Lowell’s father in real-life) refuses to give Fowler medical treatment unless he gives up information on military targets. Meantime, the Third Reich is promoting propaganda that the US has a “Luft Gangster” program that puts convicts into the military. True, Allied bombings have killed civilians and angered the families of the victims, but Fowler is no criminal. He has to rely on his wits to stay ahead of Nazi spies in the camp, such as Frank (Eric T. Miller), and he has to treat his infected leg, and he has to remain alive until the camp is liberated. This is the premise of Luft Gangster, a new play also written by Lowell Byers, produced by Nylon Fusion Theatre Company and directed by the legendary actor-writer-director Austin Pendleton.

Lowell Byers has developed the play over the course of several years. It’s also a family story, coming directly from the real-life experience of the playwright’s cousin.

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As the true story continues, Lou meets Randall (Noel Joseph Allain) and Peter (Seth James), two sympathetic British prisoners-of-war who teach Lou how to sterilize his wound and who are otherwise digging an escape tunnel. As the Brits try making tea from scrounged dandelions, another POW, Vinny (Paul Bomba), prefers his noxious homemade Prune Jack, which is not unlike the fruit brandy Slivovitz and is later used to get a guard, Werner (Andy Truschinski), drunk so they can all make a break for it.

The play presents fascinating viewpoints about the war. Lou, for example, earnestly uses Italian and German to talk to the locals. Otto (Gabe Bettio), a different guard, gives Lou a harmonica and talks with him about his appreciation for pin-up girl Betty Grable and his disdain for Hitler’s policies. Local Slavic survivor Iva — and in flashback, Lou’s hometown sweetheart Glennie (Cassandra M.J. Lollar, doing double-duty) — merge in Lou’s fatigued mind.

Luft Gangster runs through Apr. 30 at the Sheen Center (18 Bleecker St.). For tickets, click here.

And now, 5 questions no one has ever asked playwright Lowell Byers and director Austin Pendleton:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

Lowell Byers: “Which writer do you model your style after?” One of my biggest writing idols is Lanford Wilson. Similar to [David] Mamet, he embraced the idea that human beings constantly speak in broken and fragmented sentences. We are wonderfully sloppy when we speak, especially when we’re excited about something. I had the pleasure of performing in Balm in Gilead, when I first came to NYC, one of Wilson’s first plays. After I read it, I thought, “I want to write a play like this.”

Austin Pendleton: I can’t remember a particular one.

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 What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

LB: “How did you come up with that?” Like most people, I’m fascinated by a good story. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who have led interesting lives and have been gracious enough to share their experiences with me. And oftentimes the most interesting stories come out in those odd occasions that you would least expect them to — a cab ride, a bar, trip on the subway. I tend to get interesting story ideas in the least convenient settings.

AP: I can’t remember a particular one.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

LB: “Which character are you?” As an actor/writer, we tend to write one particular role that is closest to ourselves, or one that we could see ourselves playing. It gives us a chance to reflect on our own behavior and outlook on life. As a writer who acts, I imagine, whether consciously or unconsciously, there is some of me in every character I write. I think that is a natural occurrence.

AP: I can’t remember a particular one.

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In your life or in your work, what is your connection to World War II?

LB: I have two family relatives who served in World War II. My second cousin, Lou Fowler, is the hero of Luft Gangster, and my great uncle, Ashby Dick, served and was wounded in Anzio. Towards the end of the war, my uncle led his company into a brutal battle for the castle in Nuremberg. His under-strength infantry company of about 60 men was ordered to attack a group of about 1,000 SS troops who, faithful to their oath to Hitler, barricaded themselves in the castle, sworn to fight to the last man. My great uncle earned a Silver Star for his courage and bravery in this attack. Through my extensive World War II research, I am constantly inspired by the sheer bravery that the men and women of this generation possessed.

AP: I was born almost two years before America entered World War II. The oldest memory of a nightmare I have was that I dreamed one night — it must have been in summer, because it was kind of light out in the pre-dawn hours when I rushed in to wake my parents and tell them that — Hitler was on the back porch. My brother was born a little over three months before Pearl Harbor. Our sister was born almost three months after V-E day and two weeks before Hiroshima.

How has this show grown in the time leading up to the current production?

LB: Time is an incredibly valuable asset to a playwright and has certainly assisted in the evolution of this play. After I return to my work, a week, a month, sometimes a year down the line, I get a true sense of what I wrote. I started to write Luft Gangster when I was fresh out of undergrad. The story was always there, I just had to expose more of it. Lift the veil. While the foundation has remained, the character relationships, their insecurities, have undoubtedly strengthened, and truly come to the forefront. I owe a lot to Austin. The man is a dramaturgical genius, and has given me excellent feedback. Every time he came in contact with the play, he offered another terrific insight to uncover the underlying story. My father, Ralph Byers, who is already in the play, shares a great knowledge of 1940s, World War II banter, which is revealed in some of the dialogue.

AP: There are some minor rewrites, there’s a new actor in one of the roles, and the stage is a little bit larger. Other than that we have kept this production very close to the 2013 workshop.