nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 19, 2008
It's in the dictionary now—did you know that?; my American Heritage College Dictionary contains this entry:
Catch-22 also catch-22 n. A situation in which a desired outcome is impossible because of inherently illogical rules or conditions. [After Catch-22, a novel by Joseph Heller (1923-99), American writer.]
Here's the way the idea originally entered the language, as rendered in Peter Meineck's brilliant and necessary adaptation of Joseph Heller's own dramatization of his book:
I'm crazy and can be grounded. All I have to do is ask....But as soon as I do ask, I will no longer be crazy and will have to fly more missions. I'll be crazy to fly more missions, and sane if I don't. But if I'm sane I have to fly them....If I fly them, I'm crazy and don't have to, but if I don't want to I'm sane and—wow! That's some catch, that Catch-22.
Thus spake Yossarian, the now-iconic hero at the center of Heller's novel and play. "I know that I need Yossarian to live," Meineck writes in his director's note in the program, and I couldn't agree more. Thanks to Meineck's company, the always intrepid Aquila Theatre, Yossarian does live, embodied with intelligence and humanity and wit by actor John Lavelle, for at least a month at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Don't miss your chance to experience him.
When we first meet him, Yossarian is in an Army Air Corps hospital on an island off the coast of Italy; it's 1944, and the American occupation post-Mussolini is in progress. Captain Yossarian, a bombardier, has already flown dozens of missions, and on one of them he saw one of his comrades die. All he wants is to stop, to go home, and military regulations are on his side, because he's at or near the specified limit of bombing missions. But his commander, Colonel Cathcart, is a megalomaniac who wants to become famous and doesn't mind doing it at the expense of his men; for Cathcart's glory, the number of missions keeps escalating, along with the casualty count.
The throughline of Catch-22 is exactly the same as The Wizard of Oz's: Yossarian wants to go home. The journey that our hero makes in his quest toward that goal is as loony as Dorothy's, and the characters he meets are if anything more eccentric than the denizens of Baum's tale; they're both scarier and funnier because they ring so true. In addition to the crazed Cathcart, Yossarian encounters Lt. Col. Korn, Cathcart's smarter (and much more manipulative) junior officer—Cathcart and Korn think war is a game. Milo Minderbinder, the company clerk in charge of supplies, views war as just another way to make a buck; so does Wintergreen, the company mail clerk. The doctors in the army hospital are all crazy hypochondriacs. The chaplain is an Anabaptist. The guys in Yossarian's squadron are just regular guys, some of whom believe the war they're fighting has some moral or political purpose. (Signficantly, no one in command seems to think this.)
For me, the most memorable of the many people Yossarian meets is an Old Man on a Roman street who makes the seemingly odd claim that Italy will win the war. He explains:
The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that's what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying any more. But American and German soldiers are. I call that doing extremely well.
Richard Sheridan Willis, a veteran of some dozen Aquila productions, is the extraordinary actor who brings this Old Man to vivid life on stage for us; he also portrays a half-dozen other characters, including the nutty Army Hospital doctor Daneeka and the mysterious Major Major Major, who is in disguise behind eyeglasses and a Groucho moustache. Five other actors complete the ensemble: Mark Alhadeff, who is wondrously benign as the Chaplain and awe-inspiringly rotten as Wintergreen; David Bishins, who bites into the role of Col. Cathcart with relish; Chip Brookes, equally scary as Milo Minderbinder; Christina Pumariega, who plays a host of female characters including, most memorably, a pair of Italian women (a scheming young woman named Luciana and a wild-eyed prostitute known only as Nately's Whore); and Craig Wroe, who is perfectly earnest as squad member Clevinger and perfectly horrible as Lt. Col. Korn.
The quick changes add energy and theatricality to a piece that moves effortlessly from scene to scene under Meineck's taut, smart direction. The principal style of the show is farcical, but Meineck shrewdly interrupts the quick comic pace for stylized renderings of the bombing missions and, occasionally, a character's death: these are the only parts of Catch-22 that are somber, which is just as it should be: Meineck understands, if many of the play's characters do not, that death is not to be treated lightly.
In Catch-22, everything is cockeyed and off-kilter: a dying soldier's parents are persuaded that they don't know their own son's name and an egomaniacal colonel tries to pin a medal onto a naked soldier's chest. (Completely naked: be warned, if that sort of thing bothers you.) The madness of war and the madder madness of its justification are more resonant than ever, even though Mike Nichols made a film version of this story almost 40 years ago and M*A*S*H episodes are on rotation on TV Land every night of the year. So, we do need to meet Yossarian again, and to hear his whisper of sanity from within the cacophony of lunacy that we are somehow still stuck in.