Let’s not jinx Peter Meineck’s attempt to resuscitate Joseph Heller’s 1971 stage adaptation of his own seminal 1961 book, “Catch-22,” by pointing out that not even the author could get the book to cooperate. But if there is some viable way to transfer the sprawling contents of this great (and still resoundingly pertinent) anti-war novel onto the stage, that trick eludes Meineck as it did Heller. Pivotal scenes are more or less faithfully rendered, but the piecemeal production fails to capture the anarchic comic energy of the original — or to come up with a unifying style of its own.
Heller’s “Catch-22,” the stage treatment, like Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22,” the film, respects the taut logic of “Catch-22,” the novel. To wit: War is an insane enterprise sustained by insane behavior. In wartime, the insane people who perform these insane acts are considered sane — and he who points out the insanity of it all is considered crazy.
The “crazy” guy in this story is Capt. Yossarian (John Lavelle), a World War II Army Air Corps bombardier who achieves enlightenment after flying a particularly traumatic mission. Eyes opened to the inhumanity — and downright absurdity — of people killing one another, he refuses to fly another mission.
The experience that shocked Yossarian into a state of sanity is revealed in bits and pieces, through a recurring nightmare that only pays off at the end of the play. Maddeningly, this critical scene is as unimaginatively staged as the many other assaults on human intelligence and dignity that have cumulatively contributed to Yossarian’s breakdown.
These include the heartless ravings of monstrous Col. Cathcart (David Bishins); the greedy machinations of the outfit’s resident war profiteer, Milo Minderbinder (Chip Brookes); the stoic suffering of an Old Man (Richard Sheridan Willis) keeping watch on the corruption of his country; and the whining of an Anabaptist Army chaplain (Mark Alhadeff) who gets no respect when he tries to stop the madness.
As filtered through the comic prism of Yossarian’s imagination, these people inflate into grotesque caricatures, making everything they say and do sound sinister or ludicrous. (Of course there’s no morphine for the wounded — Milo sold it all on the black market.) Make that sinister and ludicrous, since “Catch-22” achieves its brilliance by delivering the ugly truths about war within the literary vernacular of absurdist comedy.
But Meineck finds no stage worthy equivalent of that maniacal laughter. Apart from the bare-ribbed outline of a bomber, and some Army training films screening in the background, there’s not even a strong visual context for Heller’s hysterical howling. While a bare stage can be an open invitation for imaginative play, this one is so barren it leaves scenes unmoored and characters dangling in space.
The players perform their parts earnestly (no winking at the audience from this company) and whenever a truly comic moment comes along, they grab it with both hands. But no one expands to fill the inflated dimensions of their oversize characters, and in what appears to be frustration, some of them push at their own limitations. In a word, they shout.
Lavelle, however, is no shouter. With his boyish sweetness and varsity good looks (substantiated in a full-frontal nude scene), he makes an upstanding representative for that generic young American soldier who is forever marching off to Appomattox and Omaha Beach and Phnom Penh and Mosul. But that isn’t exactly Yossarian, who is an angry rebel, a noisy troublemaker and someone whose time has come again — if not quite here and now, upon this stage.