Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Cyrano
Once Vietnam finally arrived and was heading toward its peak, a much-touted, very expensive movie hit the screens with every big-hit star available. It immediately failed, only decades later finally to emerge as a cult favorite. Not giving up, Joseph Heller took the fifty characters and myriad of time-tripping scenes of the novel and turned it into a two-hour play with Yossarian and many other characters played by eleven actors. That venture too largely flopped, with the play laying mostly dormant for many years, finally to see some revivals in the early 2000s. With brave intentions and a cast of enthusiastic actors giving it their best, Los Altos Stage Company takes on the troubled script, hoping to reverse history to stage a winner. Unfortunately, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 novel-turned-script does not lend itself any better to the stage in 2016 than it did in 1971, no matter how much cast and director do their darndest to make it so.
The play is a series of often disconnected, absurd scenes that are somewhat held together by the continued appearance of Yossarian. Everyone around him is on the verge of total insanity, if not already landed there. A general seeks to increase the number of feathers in his cap (which literally happens plume by plume) by insuring more men are killed so he can send more form letters of sympathy (hoping to get his picture in Life Magazine). Doctors who have never operated are trying to figure out which is the scalpel. A chaplain's supporting sergeant makes up stories that he is forging letters under the name of Washington Irving and stealing tomatoes from his commanding officer. Those tomatoes are part of a mess officer's worldwide trade venture that includes cotton from Egypt, cedars from Lebanon, and figs from Persia, leaving him no time to procure morphine for dying flyers. A revenge-seeking prostitute from Rome swinging a knife wildly around the air base, a sadistic air controller who loves sending men to their certain deaths, and a major (named Major Major) who crawls in and out of his office window in disguise so no one will see him are just a few of the many ridiculous characters this cast so furiously introduce to us.
Only, in the end, not much of this is very funny, no matter how many scenic elements right out of a M.A.S.H. unit are swung in and out, sometimes even choreographed to music. It all somehow sounds funnier in the written word than it is on the live stage; and the result, at least on the afternoon I attended, is mostly deafening silence from the audience. No matter how fast everyone moves around on stage, the play still seems to move too slowly. Seemingly dozens of scenes come and go without our ever caring that much that at the heart of this entire absurdist play is war, destruction, blood, and death. By the mid-second act, we just want to get out of there as much as Yossarian does.
But the fault again lies not with this cast, with Daniel P. Wilson's direction, with Sharon Peng's hilarious costumes, or with Ting-Na Wang's cartoon-like and highly mobile set. Fault lies in the script and the decision to put Catch-22 on the season's bill.
Bryan Moriarty desperately does all he can to breathe life into the hero Yossarian, but what he is unable to do is to build much empathy from the audience for the bombardier's dilemma, because the frenetic script never allows his character to develop into a personality we can understand and care about. Other actors have here-and-there moments to shine their skills of comedy as they switch among many roles, but the choppy script often ends any one scene so abruptly that we are left with a "huh?" versus a reason to guffaw.
In the end, Los Altos Stage Company's Catch-22 has become just that: The more the ensemble tries to survive the uneven script, the more the script deflates their noble efforts. A Catch-22 for sure.
Catch-22 continues through May 1, 2016, at the Los Alto Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos, CA. Tickets are available online at http://losaltosstage.org or Monday - Friday, 3 - 6 p.m. in person at the box office or by calling 650-941-0551.