Note: This is a joint review of both 'Catch 22' and David Rabe's Streamers playing at the Laura Pels Theatre.
Edwin Starr's 1970 hit song, "War ï¿½ what is it good for, absolutely nothing," seems to echo in two off-Broadway anti-war plays this season, Scott Ellis's revival of David Rabe's Streamers and Peter Meineck's new adaptation of Joseph Heller's classic novel, "Catch-22." Both trumpet the view, though in very different ways, that war breeds corruption, despair and insanity.
Streamers set at the escalation of the Vietnam War, has much to say about the turmoil and confusion young men face when threatened by forces beyond what they might ever have imagined. This powerful drama focuses on four young soldiers fresh from boot camp in 1965 Virginia who are awaiting their inevitable deployment -- with obvious anxiety. Curiously, the enlisted men who share this private room in the barracks are all E.D. ï¿½ exempt from duty ï¿½ and have nothing to do but clean their room and contemplate their situations. Hypothetical discussions over whether they would rather be stuck in freezing snow, like in Korea, or in poisonous snake pits in the jungles of Vietnam, keep them pre-occupied.
New African-American draftee Carlyle -- a stereotypical throwback to pre-civil rights Southern sensibilities -- with more brawn than brains, bursts into their room uninvited to see how the upper half lives. Neither Richie, who is struggling with his sexual identity, nor Billy, the unwilling object of Richie's desires, nor Roger, a fastidious upwardly mobile 'brother' is sure how to deal with Carlyle's raw-ness.
Hanging out with him is risky and could get them in trouble. Carlyle's views on life are simplistic, and his impulses are uncontrollable. Tensions rise over race, sexuality and class, culminating in an unforeshadowed violent event that changes all of them forever without ever leaving their room.
While it is naï¿½ve to think that racism and privilege do not still exist in the armed services, the issues raised in Streamers are not as potent today as they were in the 1960s. Which brings us to the anti-war dramedy "Catch-22" whose previous stage version, written in 1971 by Heller himself, was unsuccessful. Director Peter Meineck understands in this new adaptation that staging lunacy is no simple feat. But one has to love Yossarian, the World War II bombardier whoï¿½d "rather die than be killed in combat."
Like Cpl. Klinger in M.A.S.H., Yossarian is bucking for a Section-8 to get out of flying more missions, but his problem is Catch 22. In true military jargon, Catch-22 states that one has to ask for a Section-8 and declare one's insanity in order to be judged insane. However, if you can successfully declare your own insanity, then ipso facto, you are not insane.
Lying in the infirmary faking liver disease with his pal Lt. Dunbar who's prone to anxiety attacks, Yossarian knows he can't win and will eventually be sent out on another mission. Anyone who does whatever it takes to get out of combat canï¿½t be crazy.
The only immediately apparent alternative for Yossarian is to fly enough missions to be sent home. But to get back to Starr and his "War" song, war is good for some things, such as making some men rich off the backs of others. With Col. Cathcart seeking General status, and Milo Mindbinder seeking millions on the black market, the division between the ones who send the soldiers into combat and the ones who are sent is placed front and center. And the number of missions Yossarian must complete in order to be discharged with honor keeps rising arbitrarily.
"Catch 22" and Streamers are actually pretty good plays, but no onstage re-enactment of the miseries of war can drive home the reality more than seeing homeless vets begging for change, or televised corruption hearings such as Blackwater. These send more powerful messages about war being good for absolutely nothing than any play ever can.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"Any attempt to transfer ï¿½Catch-22ï¿½ off the page is a bold undertaking, and while Mr. Meineckï¿½s staging is imaginative and faithful in spirit to Hellerï¿½s novel, it ultimately proves an uneven effort." & "The weakness in the Aquila production comes from some of Mr. Meineckï¿½s directorial choices. Several performances are pure caricature, and others are so overwrought that the humor is lost in pure volume."
New York Times
"The book's madcap looniness doesn't translate well to the stage. Instead, it lurches from episode to episode without translating the action into compelling theatrical terms." & "The production is more lumbering than satisfactorily absurd."
New York Post
"Adapter-director Peter Meineck's reductive and overly broad stage version of Catch-22 never succeeds in navigating the fine duality of Heller's original." & "The staging and some of the performances are so antic that the gravity of Yossarian's plight is never fully felt."