Stalag 17, American Blues Theatre. In the pantheon of POW dramas, Stalag 17 ranks somewhere between Jean Renoir’s brilliant Grand Illusion and a 1940s Danny Kaye vehicle. Taut and highly entertaining, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski’s Tony-winning play is nevertheless a bit formulaic and lightweight. Until its gripping conclusion, this drama of American soldiers in a German prison camp rooting out a Nazi spy in their midst is somewhat quotidian, failing to explore the larger implications of the World War II experience. Instead the playwrights concentrate on familiar American military types and quip-laden patter reminiscent of Beetle Bailey strips and Broadway-musical dialogue (“You’re on borrowed time, ya crud!”). American Blues Theatre’s dumbed-down advertising campaign (“Before M*A*S*H, before Hogan’s Heroes, there was Stalag 17”) itself suggests that audiences shouldn’t come expecting Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy.
Still, the production is expertly paced and cunningly designed. Under Louis Contey’s direction–so finely honed and efficient that at times it resembles a military operation–the 13 perfectly cast actors blaze through the drama with utter precision and integrity, mining the script for both its wit and its tense, compelling finale. Robert Maffia and Bradley C. Woodard are especially good as a couple of hotheaded Bostonians from opposite sides of the tracks. And the production values, particularly Luke Cantarella’s clever set, could not be better. Those in search of an excellent production of an old-fashioned and comfortingly familiar evening of theater will not be disappointed.