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Heights Players’ ’Stalag 17’ mines laughs from World War II POW camp

for The Brooklyn Paper
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A prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany may seem an ideal place to set a tight, suspenseful drama. But it’s not so obviously the source of in-your-face comedy. Nevertheless playwrights Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski found the setting perfect for both in their 1951 Broadway hit "Stalag 17."

Now at the Heights Players, the show is being given a thoughtful and vigorous treatment by director Ed Healy and his exuberant band of 18 actors.

Bevan and Trzcinski gave their script a bone-chilling, head-nodding, slow-chuckling dose of realism, thanks to their first-hand knowledge of the subject matter: they were both prisoners of war in the real Stalag 17 during World War II.

Gary VanderPutten has designed a set that captures all that gritty realism. He put an unfinished, dirty wooden floor over the Heights Players’ lovely parquet and furnished the prison compound with bunk beds that make your back ache just from looking at them.

It is in this depressing environment that the men joke, tease, bicker and hope. But when a seemingly foolproof escape plan results in the death of two American soldiers, it becomes clear that an informer lives in their midst. The fear and anger this generates among the inmates comes to a head when a new prisoner arrives, the rich and pampered Dunbar (Ryan Fuhrmann), who has fallen afoul of the Germans because he is suspected of setting a train on fire.

The Nazis have no real evidence against Dunbar until his companion and accomplice, a loose-tongued soldier-actor named Reed (Jeff Broitman, who is most notable for his excellent imitations of all the famous actors of the day) spills the beans within earshot of the informer.

The characterization of Nazis as sadistic incompetents is now cliche, but one suspects Bevan and Trzcinski may have been influential in the formulation of that image. At any rate, Matthew Woods as Corporal Schultz struts and fumes, wheedles and whines in a perfect rendition of the well-known character type. Similarly Vincent Panos does hilarious justice to the role of the nasal mailman Marko - the village idiot.

"Stalag 17" succeeds because it so artfully erases the line between comedy and drama. Although Bevan and Trzcinski were very adept at providing the right bits of information at the right time while maintaining the rollicking humor, the play still stands or falls on the skill of the actors.

Michael Basile (last seen at the Heights Players as David Kolowitz in "Enter Laughing") is utterly believable and funny as Harry Shapiro, the obligatory wisecracking Jew, who probably - although it is never openly stated - hails from Brooklyn. (Why this ubiquitous stereotype is always named Shapiro is anyone’s guess.)

The snickering, sarcastic Sefton is viscerally brought to life by Galway McCullough. The tortured Horney never says a word, but Daniel Cardona performs wonders with his blank stare and tuneless playing of a whistle-like instrument.

In 1953, the brilliant Billy Wilder adapted the stage play into a motion picture starring the Academy Award-winning William Holden as Sefton, a role some say made him Bogie’s successor to the American cynic role. Twelve years later, the television comedy series "Hogan’s Heroes" took up the same theme. Only in that version the prisoners are in complete control and the camp has been renamed Stalag 13. The similarity, however was close enough for Bevan and Trzcinski to sue.

Although it’s easy to see what incited the playwrights’ ire - the silly sitcom had about as much to do with "Stalag 17" as a rhinestone has to do with a diamond - the several variations on Bevan and Trzcinski’s work do prove there’s something enduring about the theme of imperfect men in an imperfect world struggling to survive and smile through it all. In the Heights Players’ production, the theme triumphs.

 

 

The Heights Players’ production of "Stalag 17" runs through March 20, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm at The Heights Players theater (26 Willow Place between State and Joralemon streets in Brooklyn Heights). Tickets are $12, $10 students and seniors. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752 or visit www.heightsplayers.org.

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