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THEATER REVIEW : 'Stalag 17' Can't Escape Datedness

March 19, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — "Stalag 17" is exactly the kind of play that only "the good war"--as Studs Terkel termed World War II--could produce.

When we think of American POWs today, we think of Vietnamese bamboo cages and The Wall. The Nazi barracks in Donald Bevan's and Edmund Trzcinski's drama-comedy, now in a revival at the Huntington Beach Playhouse, don't seem that terrible in comparison.

Of course, for the captured American airmen back then, they were. (To drive the point home, Bevan and Trzcinski even insert Nazi violations of Geneva Convention regulations.) Nevertheless, after Vietnam, the Pueblo and the recent POWs in Ethiopia, the bad guys in this play seem only moderately bad.

So, for "Stalag 17" to work, we have to will ourselves back to the good war. That won't be hard for some (Sunday's audience was full of seniors who could remember).

And for those not so senior, it's doubly hard, since "Hogan's Heroes," the TV spinoff of Billy Wilder's movie spinoff of the play, is always in the background. A funny show, but a weird one to look at while Vietnam was being broadcast during dinner.

The play, however, isn't nearly as deliberately funny as that series or the movie, which shows you what effect a successful spinoff can have. (Wilder's version especially goosed up the laughs and lowered the drama's volume.)

It wastes no time setting up the contestants: on one hand, bitter, alienated Sefton (Weldon Michaels), who's suspected of being a spy; on the other, barracks commanding officer Hoffman (Michael Durack), security man Price (John Arthur) and buddies Stosh and Shapiro (Anthony Ramirez and Mark Cook), who do the suspecting. Actually, all the guys are suspicious--Sefton has two sets of enemies and finds himself in two sets of prisons.

This is surely the best idea in "Stalag 17," but it's played out with the standard '50s dramatic bathos that makes the play a dated chestnut. Sefton is too bitter, too unlikable, too contentious for there not to be something else going on.

The misdirection--as the term in the trade goes--is ladled on too thick for our own suspicions not to take rise. What kind of monster would tell Cpl. Shultz (Lee Laningham) about every planned escape, for instance? Sefton is an early James Dean type, a brother to Prewitt, the alienated hero of "From Here to Eternity." But he's not evil.

Michaels admirably pushes this guy's bitterness to the limit, unafraid to play up Sefton's ugliness. Durack generally plays it cool as the man in charge. But, triggered by the mano-a-mano confrontations, melodramatics are never far away, and this infects most of director Cyndi Mitchell's cast.

Ramirez and Cook remarkably resemble Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck (who were the sidekicks in both the Broadway and film versions), but they also do a lot of tired snarling.

Arthur's security man is the weakest link, always seeming as if he's not quite sure where to go next. Brian McCoy, as a Boston rich boy suspected by the Nazis of being a saboteur, is good at the boyishness but doesn't project the kind of privileged attitude that sends Sefton up a wall.

Steven Toth's actor-soldier isn't able to pull off the impersonations he's asked to perform (there are too many as written in any case, another example of the play's ham-fistedness). But Laningham grows in his role as Shultz, and James Cavens as camp commandant really does command attention in an all-German-speaking part, absolutely oozing with Third Reichian control and chilliness.

Martin G. Eckmann's set is a good fit on the playhouse's newish stage, but Jeff Warner's lights could do with less warmth and more claustrophobic coldness. That effect comes through much better with a sound design (by Mitchell and Brent Turner) of crossed radio signals.

* "Stalag 17," Huntington Beach Playhouse, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m ; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 27. $9-$12. (714) 375-0696. 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Weldon Michaels: Sefton

John Arthur: Price

Michael Durack: Hoffman

Anthony Ramirez: Stosh

Mark Cook: Shapiro

Brian McCoy: Dunbar

Steven Toth: Reed

Lee Laningham: Cpl. Shultz

Sean Katlen: Herb

Greg White: Duke

Peter A. Balaskas: Horney

Michael Havnaer: Marko

James Cavens: Commandant

A Huntington Beach Playhouse production of the drama-comedy by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. Directed by Cyndi Mitchell. Set: Martin G. Eckmann. Lights: Jeff Warner. Sound: Mitchell and Brent Turner. Costumes: Evelyn and Vern Dart.

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