“I see nossing! NOSS-ING!”
Fans of vintage TV won’t fail to recognize Sgt. Schultz’ signature line in “Hogan’s Heroes.” Set in a World War II German POW camp, the show chronicled the madcap antics of clever American POWs who outwitted their lovably bumbling Nazi captors at every turn.
“Hogan’s Heroes” was loosely based on Stalag 17, a dark, 1953 film directed by Billy Wilder that copped an Academy Award for lead actor William Holden. The film, in turn, was based on an even grimmer 1951 Broadway play of the same name.
The American Century Theater company has revived this long-forgotten drama in its powerful, gripping new production of Stalag 17. Opening last week at Theatre II in Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center, Stalag 17 runs through April 17, and is well worth a look.
The original play was penned by two GIs—writer-cartoonist Donald Bevan and Bronx native Edmund Trzcinski—who were actually imprisoned in a bleak German compound known as Stalag 17B. It’s a fictionalized account of their wartime experiences, with composite characters drawn from real life.
A real German stalag was never a country club. Rations were kept short, sometimes deliberately so. Prisoners were roughly treated, sometimes tortured, and sometimes shot either for minor infractions or bolder escape attempts. Driven to the edge by hunger and privation, many plotted to escape the camps by any means possible, no matter what the consequences. Tempers could flare, and patience was limited.
American Century captures the stark essence of this environment in its ingeniously crude and depressing set—the realistic interior of a POW bunkhouse in a larger, barbed wire ringed compound. Cobbled together with rude clapboards, virtually windowless, and obviously un-insulated, such quarters are freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer. Bunks are lined up against the wall, back-to-back. Space is cramped. Furnishings are minimal, and blankets are few.
GIs (airmen in this case) are uncomfortably crammed into these small quarters. Most would have never become friends or even encounter one another in real life, which only serves to exacerbate already existing tensions in the POW bunkhouse. While these inmates gain some release from ribald humor or practical joking, the potential for violence always lurks just beneath the surface.
It’s in this confining box that all the action of Bevan’s and Trzcinski’s play takes place. Whatever happens outside is heard but not seen – except the show’s violent, vengeful climax, which takes place just outside the bunkhouse door.
The audience, facing this bunkhouse in Theatre II’s black box space, is soon enveloped, literally drawn in to this claustrophobic nightmare. Although the theater’s traditional “fourth wall” is never broken, the audience becomes a silent participant, almost like a collective voyeur pulling for the Americans to win but unable to lend a hand.
The play’s characters are dropped into this box to sort things out for themselves. And the large cast, under the able direction of William Aitken, does an unusually fine job of bringing them to bristling, snarling life.
The play’s central character—its anti-hero, really—is a soldier named Sefton. He’s a scrappy loner, a not-very-likable former street kid whose willingness to barter goods with both GIs and Nazis puts him on the outs with his barracks-mates. They suspect he’s a plant, a secret Nazi collaborator who’s responsible for thwarting their numerous escape plans. Corralled and beaten to a pulp by the infuriated inmates, he ultimately turns the tables in the end.
Tony Bullock plays Sefton’s complex, standoffish character close to the vest. You don’t ever really like him. But you’re never convinced that this town misfit is a turncoat either, since he gradually reveals an odd, quirky sense of integrity. Aggressive at the play’s outset, he furtively retreats to the corners after he’s attacked, evolving into a stealthy detective stalking the real Benedict Arnold. It’s a convincing performance.
But as good as Bullock’s Sefton is, he couldn’t come to life without a fine supporting cast. Fortunately, he gets one in this production.
As the touchy, Polish-American Stosh, John Stange ably fills out the role of Sefton’s chief antagonist. Hot-tempered, suspicious of nearly everyone, Stosh is the bully everyone needs to watch out for, though he singles out Sefton for most of his TLC.
Balancing Stosh is the bunkhouse’s semi-official chief, Hoffman (aka Hoffy), who’s played with crisp, military precision by Bill Gordon. Gordon’s Hoffy is a bit of a military prig. Yet he stands up to everyone, including Stosh, and is generally successful in keeping the peace even when things get a bit hot under the collar. His refusal to give up a key secret in the play’s second half gets him in serious trouble with the guards. But this earns him even greater respect from his peers.
Corporal Schultz—who apparently was promoted in the TV series—is an oily character, smoothly portrayed by Hans Dettmar. Dettmar’s Schultz has a lot more facets than John Banner’s lovable but shallow TV Sergeant. Suave, ingratiating, perhaps a bit naïve, he’s eager for the Americans to trust him. But it’s all a ruse as we eventually discover in Act II, when Dettmar suddenly flashes Schultz’ true colors.
Another key figure in the action is Price, Hoffy’s designated “security officer.” He’s played by Jon Townson as a kind of regular guy, a bit officious but generally okay. He’s definitely no friend of Sefton’s, but you sense this is more out of his desire to be a “regular guy” rather than out of any conviction. In a way, Price is Sefton’s sinister doppelgänger. Like Sefton, he’s a cipher and intentionally so, and you can feel this in Townson’s edgy reading.
In a smaller but key part, James Finley does a nice job as Dunbar, the apparently superficial rich kid. Heir to a wealthy, prominent family, Dunbar entered the war arena mostly to burnish his at-home rep, but actually becomes the ringleader in an offstage act of anti-Nazi sabotage. In a touch of onstage class warfare, he and Sefton nearly come to blows after trading insults. But things begin to change when Dunbar is carted off for questioning when news of his exploits somehow leaks out.
Another good performance was turned in by Steve Lebens who portrays Reed, an entertainer in civilian life. His off-the-cuff movie star impersonations provide much needed amusement for his bunkmates. Unfortunately, he’s also a bit of a blabbermouth. Intimately familiar with Dunbar’s sabotage plot, he unwittingly betrays his comrade by bragging about their exploits.
In smaller roles, the rest of the cast turns in nifty performances that really help this show come to life. These characters include Donald L. Osborne’s goofy Shapiro; Tom Eisman’s gawky Herb Gordon; Gabriel J. Swee’s stalwart Duke; David Olmstead’s sad, hollowed-out Horney; Jay Hardee’s loopy Marko; and James Svatko’s too-proper Swiss bureaucrat.
A hat tip as well to the remaining Nazi bad guys, including Matthew Meixler as an S.S. guard (doubling as Yank prisoner McCarthy), Karl Bittner as a nasty S.S. Captain, and to the production crew, notably set designer Anndi Daleske, lighting designer Cheryl Ann Gnerlich, and soundman Ian Armstrong, all of whose efforts help to provide a surprisingly realistic backdrop.
Brickbats? Only one, really. During Saturday evening’s performance, a number of characters tripped briefly over their lines, some more than once. These were minor glitches, to be sure. But in an intense play like this, that’s just enough to break the mood. With a little more practice and the absence of opening weekend jitters, it should be easy to clear this up.
by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski
directed by William Aitken
produced by American Century Theater
reviewed by Terry Ponick
Stalag 17 runs through April 17, 2010.