With the newly coined concept of "preemptive war," embedding of war journalists, and the quasi-legal extension of American military tours of duty, there is no better time than now for a stage adaptation of Joseph Heller's darkly brilliant book, which spawned a heralded film adaptation by director Mike Nichols. This adaptation—involving 12 actors taking on 40 roles in Heller's World War II tale of moral bankruptcy, bureaucratic mayhem, and spiritual dissolution—sets itself a tall order, encapsulating an iconic book via scores of short scenes. And when it works, it is a delight.
Captain Joseph Yossarian (Robert Gantzos), a bombardier, wants to get out of the military as because his insane commander keeps increasing bombing runs to get himself bumped up to general. Along the way, Yossarian is psychologically strafed by such whack jobs as conniving mail clerk Wintergreen (a brilliantly quirky Matt J. Popham); Nurse Duckett (a lovely Larisa Miller), who alternately adores him and tells him she wants to marry a doctor; and an ineffectual and terrified chaplain (an endearing Gary Cearlock). Many of the players essay numerous roles, and Popham, Miller, and Cearlock are particularly adept.
But director Claudia Jaffee urges the performers to not only move at breakneck speed but also move toward cartoonishness in their depictions. The more somber moments, which are too few and not interspersed evenly, are quite welcome amid this strident approach. Heller's powerfully absurdist moments still ring true, as when Yossarian decides, "I'd rather die than be killed," or is told by an abandoned old Italian woman, after being given cash to live on, "Money is not enough." It is a tall order making this sprawling, hilarious, and devastating book work onstage, and while the mission is not fully accomplished, there are direct hits that leave a major impact.
"Catch-22," presented by and at West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., L.A. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Oct. 1-Nov. 21. $20-22. (323) 525-0022.