Good Company Players is having a really good summer. At Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, a polished production of the musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” is connecting with audiences on a tender emotional level. And across the street at the 2nd Space, a taut and accomplished version of “Stalag 17″ is connecting emotionally as well — but this time with heart-pounding suspense.
Duane Boutte, a GCP veteran who has spent 20 years in New York as a professional actor, is obviously a natural director as well. That’s clear from the opening minutes of this classic play, which most people know from the 1953 movie starring William Holden about a group of American airmen held in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II.
Though his cast consists of a whopping 19 members on a very small stage — many of them there for most of the show — Boutte’s fluid staging and keen sense of story make the whole thing seem almost effortless. At times in the show, it’s fun to glance from the foreground action at the “background” characters and how they’re positioned on Brian Pucheu’s cleverly crammed set, just to see how Boutte is using them to advance the scene. Whether crammed into bunk beds or ensconced in the minutiae of daily barracks living, the prisoners become almost like living scenery.
The men at the camp are struggling, of course, and as the end of the war approaches there’s a palpable sense of them trying to survive long enough to taste freedom. That makes the news we learn as the play opens even more tragic. Two of the prisoners tried to escape the night before — and were shot by the Germans. This is how we meet the key character of Sefton (played with an accomplished brusque flair by GCP vet Patrick Allan Tromborg in one of his strongest performances), whose sluggish response to the news means that his fellow prisoners have to stand outside looking at the bodies while he ambles along to roll call.
Sefton is a grumpy misfit and successful black marketer who doesn’t mesh well with the other prisoners. His social skills aren’t keen, and he’s probably a little crazy as well. All this helps explain why his fellow prisoners suspect him of being a spy. Someone in the barracks had to have informed the Germans about those two prisoners who tried to escape. This idea of a traitor within becomes the dominant plot device.
But the levity in the play — the small little coping mechanisms ranging from silly asides to outright pranks — makes a nice balance with the suspense. It seems it would be easy, as a prisoner, to crawl into a little ball and disengage from the world, but you get the feeling that the men who go on to survive such an ordeal are the ones who can laugh at adversity.
There are some dramatic moments in the play that could be stronger. I wanted to feel more menace in the second act when the Germans become abusive with the barracks leader, Hoffman (Henry Montelongo), and when Dunbar (David Marinovich), an upper-crust Boston airman, gets into serious trouble. We should feel as if the pulses of the characters are racing. There’s no need for excessive violence in a play such as this, but when it does come around, it should have some bite.
Boutte and Terry Lewis, the language and dialects coach, coax strong performances from the cast. Standouts among the prisoners include Raul Reyes as the outgoing Stosh, Brian S. Freet as the husky-voiced Harry, Brian Rhea as the security officer, Price, and Joel Young as the naive Herb.
Chris Carsten is an outstanding Corporal Schultz, the seemingly genial German soldier who interacts with the prisoners on a regular basis. (Carsten, a hugely talented presence on stage, finds both buffoon and menace in his character.) I also liked Gary Mosher’s portrayal of the “Geneva Man” — the Swiss official checking the status of the prisoners — quite a lot.
Evan Commins’ lighting design helps give character and differentiation to the cramped set, and Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s period costumes are top-notch. With its accomplished direction, brisk storyline and strong ensemble cast, “Stalag 17″ doesn’t disappoint.