John Lavelle (center) with Mark Alhadeff, Christina Pumariega,
Chip Brookes, and David Bishins in Catch-22
(© Richard Termine)
John Lavelle (center) with Mark Alhadeff, Christina Pumariega,
Chip Brookes, and David Bishins in Catch-22
(© Richard Termine)
The title of Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22 instantly became part of the language -- and remains so almost half a century later. However, Peter Meineck's stage adaptation, also titled Catch-22, and now being presented by the Aquila Theatre Company at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, suggests there's a Catch-23. While the work, also directed by the author, is intermittently effective in its depiction of the deficient logic prevailing at an American Air Force unit deployed on and over Italian soil, it's too often an unsatisfactory reduction of the print incarnation.

As the book's readers know -- as do viewers who recall Mike Nichols' disappointing 1970 film version -- the hellzapoppin' plot relentlessly stalks bombardier captain John Yossarian (John Lavelle) through World War II's harrowing 1944 campaign when the number of missions necessary for personnel to complete before being free to go home is continually raised from 40 to 50 and beyond.

During that annus horribilus, Yossarian loses buddies like Levinger (Craig Wroe), while thick-headed but determined superiors like Colonel Cathcart (David Bishins) and war profiteers like Milo Minderbinder (Chip Brookes) seek personal aggrandizement. No amount of attempting to prove he's insane succeeds for Yossarian -- Catch-22 stops him on that score -- and he's left to liberate himself from the lines of many fires via a maneuver triggered by the avenging lover of a recently deceased colleague. But whether Yossarian lives or dies seems beside the point; either to be or not to be would convincingly jibe with the opus' logical study of wartime's illogic.

For that reason, editing Heller's sprawling narrative isn't a bad idea. Meineck's problem is that in reducing the book to 11 scenes over two acts, he's not only excised many characters and subplots, he's also lost the heft of Heller's hilariously addled prose. Meineck gets closest to his goal in a first-act-finale when Yossarian -- hoisted in the air in a skeletal plane-nose -- is on a particularly damaging mission and in a second-act sequence when Yossarian and Major Sanderson (Richard Sheridan Willis), a psychiatrist at his wit's end, swap the kind of non sequiturs Samuel Beckett might have written for Abbott and Costello.

Meineck has, not surprisingly, kept several of Heller's most memorable lines -- especially those in which the phrase Catch-22 is explained. But more often, what he's retained and how he's directed the scenes is no more than loud and obvious. This puts his hard-working and often-doubling actors under pressure. Lavelle (who has a full-frontal nude scene along the way) delivers much of Yossarian's anger and frustration but misses some of the futility. Meanwhile, the others -- including Mark Alhadeff as mustachioed characters of various cocky and diffident stripes, Christina Pumariega as dedicated Nurse Duckett and a hooker causing Yossarian literally no end of trouble, and Emily Cardea as the whore's young sister -- do their best while caught in the less-than-satisfactory goings-on.