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Subversive Theatre's 'Catch-22' reflects chaos of war in chaos on stage

Author Joseph Heller will live forever for coining the phrase "Catch-22" with his bestselling antiwar novel of the same name, but the play he adapted from that novel does not enjoy the same cachet.

Heller has only himself to blame. His book "Catch-22" is masterpiece of contradictions, satire and sincerity balanced on an intricate scaffolding of chicanery, horror and death. Transferred to the stage, the scaffolding collapses, leaving a few of the pieces in working order, with many lost under the debris.

Director Kurt Schneiderman and more than a dozen performers make a valiant effort to untangle the pile in Subversive Theatre's presentation of "Catch-22." However, a promising start soon loses its wind in the meandering script, although there are a number of bright spots in the overly long (more than 2 1/2 hours) production, and its relevance to present-day politics can't be denied.

Connor Maxwell is strong as Heller's anti-hero Capt. Yossarian, the bombardier who is sick of war and, understandably, doesn't want to die for it. He has flown dozens of bombing missions and wants to be grounded. But since you can be grounded only if you are crazy, and you'd have to be crazy to want to fly, only sane people want to be grounded, and you have to be sane to be allowed to fly. It's in the rule book under Catch-22.

"That is some catch, that Catch-22," Yossarian says.

"It's the best there is," replies the base's Doc Daneeka (Lawrence Rowswell).

If there is anything holding the action together, it's Chaplain Tappman, and Jack Agugliaro plays the story's good guy with depth and credibility. The chaplain is alone in trying to do his job, even when he's almost punished for it.

Meanwhile, the other officers, servicemen and various nurses and prostitutes are wrung through various vignettes of greed, sabotage and collusion. There are laughs to be had, but Heller's pacing is uneven, with some narratives so abbreviated they are nearly meaningless and others that continue long after the joke has come and gone.

There is much too much Major Major, despite the character being well-rendered by Jacob Chester Sauer, while Milo Minderbinder (Leon Copeland Jr.) provides barely a blip of black market mayhem.

A few moments have unexpectedly timely resonance, like when officers explain they can make as many different reports as they want about a matter, depending on what they want them to say.

As we were watching this onstage, in real post-Sharpie absurdity Twitter time the NOAA was issuing an anonymous statement that Alabama actually may have been in the original path of Hurricane Dorian -- something the National Hurricane Center said is entirely false.

Heller's book came out in 1961. The movie -- with a screenplay by Buck Henry, not Heller -- was released in 1970 and is available on DVD and elsewhere. Earlier this year, streaming service Hulu released a "Catch-22" miniseries. To be able to follow along in the play, it would be useful to read or watch any one of those beforehand.

Also, even though the evening was cool when the show opened, temperatures were oppressive inside the black box theater on the third floor of the Great Arrow Building. The heat affects one's ability to appreciate even the best of plays. After so many years, it might be time for Subversive to look into better climate control.



2 stars (out of four)

Runs through Sept. 28 by Subversive Theatre in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Parking is available in a lot across the street. Tickets are $30; $25 for students, seniors and members, at "Catch-22" is presented in partnership with the Western New York Peace Center.

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