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Glenda Frank

Oh, What a Funny War!

''Catch 22'' adapted from the novel by Joseph Heller
Directed and designed by Peter Meineck
Produced by the Aquila Theatre at Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., NYC.
Nov. 14 – Dec. 20, 2008. Tickets $49. 212-279-4200
The box office. Tues. - and Sat., 8 PM; Sun. 2 PM.or www.ticketcentral.com
by Glenda Frank

When Joseph Heller published "Catch 22," his wildly comical war novel in 1961, everyone stood up and applauded. Pretty soon the phrase "catch 22" for an untenable set of choices – comparable, maybe even worse than the Freudian double-bind, linguistic oxymoron and philosophical paradox – became as familiar to everyone as the words for table and chair. No one had written anything like it since the brilliant, absurdist antiwar classic "The Good Soldier Svejk," by Jaroslav Hasek in 1923, but that was about a Czech soldier, not an American. There was familiarity and the ring of truth to "Catch 22." But then the film adaptation directed by Mike Nichols crashed as did a stage adaptation, and "Mash" (a novel by Richard Hooker, then a movie, then a TV series) with its own brand of Korean War farce became the flavor of two decades.

Well, "Catch 22" is back and funnier than ever in Peter Meineck's adaptation for Aquila Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. It's poetic, brutal, satiric, incisive, and always smart. This production is Meineck's baby. He not only directed with panache but also designed the visuals. His Playbill resume may be long, but you still might wonder where he has been showcasing all this talent until now.

The play follows the adventures of Captain Yossarian (John Lavelle), a U. S. Army Air Forces World War II B-25 bombardier stationed on Pianosa, an island west of Italy, as he tries desperately to get a discharge and return home. The problem is that his commanding officer keeps upping the base number of missions. Yossarian spends half his time in the hospital, trying to figure out how to convince everyone that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a term that wasn't invented until the mid-1970s. He calls it being "crazy." His recurring nightmares are enough to convince us, but he hits a bureaucratic speed bump every time. When he complains "they" are trying to kill him and protests that he no longer wants to drop bombs, they consider him sane and send him up again.

The novel is rambling, told from several perspectives and filled with many characters. Meineck had to pare it down and dramatize it. And therein lies his brilliance. He captured the terror of war in one repeating gesture. Picture three cots and three sleeping men. Suddenly one bolts upright, gasping for air, staring into space, terrified. This is Yossarian waking from his nightmare, and each time the action repeats, in a different context, the terror builds.

Meineck visualized Yossarian's fear for us by the bombardier's cage, which is enough to give anyone with a little claustrophobia the tremors. An open iron structure, it is a rocking fish bowl, just large enough for one man to sit but impossible to stand or exit except by crawling backwards. This is the prison in both the captain's dream and his actual bombing missions. It's on these flights that the black market comedy, which plays such a prominent role in the book, takes on another tone. One member of Yossarian's squadron (Chip Brookes as Milo Minderbinder) is a master of the deal so with the blessing of the higher officers, who get their cut, he trades Air Force goodies for other merchandise and transports it to new markets on Army planes. The tomatoes Col Cathcart (David Bishins) offers anyone he talks to are funny until we and Yossarian discover that the parachutes and the morphine needed for a dying soldier have been part of a trade.

The play veers back and forth between the poignant and the hilarious with stops between. Often it merges the two, as in the case of the family that has arrived too late to comfort their dying son. The medic convinces Yossarian to bandage up and play dying. Yossarian tells the family his real name and they alternate between calling him Yossarian and Giuseppe (the soldier's name), just wanting to keep contact. There's lots of shtick, jokes, even some slapstick – and the point is clear. The family needs to comfort this son even if he has the wrong name – or is the wrong soldier. Yossarian for his good deed is then discharged, but the medic signs the wrong chart – and so he flies again.

Just one more instance – with Nately's whore. (It's tempting to writing more and more; each scene is scrumptious.) Sometimes the production is a vaudeville comedy – as when the men on shore leave dance and through their mad movements you know just how they feel. The exaggerated gestures of the Italian family, the nonchalance of the old grandfather (Richard Sheridan Willis), the indifferent sister who prefers other soldiers to her boyfriend Nately (Mark Alhadeff) – and then the sudden poignant deaths of the teen-age Nately and his whore (Christina Pumariega). Oh – and there's also the nude scene. The comedy keeps turning corners.

This is one powerful anti-war play although you exit laughing. You may not believe that Yossarian is going to find a utopia in Sweden, but it's so obvious that escape to Utopia is the only right ending for a play that explores so much geopolitics in mapping out the human comedy.

Great cast, many playing multiple roles, impressive direction, innovative acting styles, and mostly a clarity of vision that brings Heller's novel to life. The Modern Library ranked "Catch-22" seventh of the greatest English novels in the twentieth century. This production helps you remember why and inspires a trip to the nearest Barnes & Noble.

Meineck called "Catch 22" the American Iliad. Aquila's next production (March 27 - April 25 2009) is a reprise of their 1999 adaptation of Homer's "Iliad", which was inspired by the cover of Stanley Lombardo's translation, a photograph of the D-day landings, which is titled Into the Jaws of Death. Sounds like the theatre troupe has declared it own brave mission.

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