Playwright: Joseph Heller
At: Steep Theatre, 3902 N. Sheridan Rd.
Phone: ( 312 ) 458-0722; $15
Runs through: Nov. 9
'Catch-22' has entered the English language as jargon for any paradoxical and thus, self-obstructing, administrative directive. Its origins lie in Thomas Heller's searing 1961 indictment of the United States Military bureaucracy, based on his own experience as a fighter pilot during World War Two. His hero, fellow combat pilot Captain Yossarian, is frustrated by the steadily increasing number of hazardous missions required of flyers before they will be shipped back stateside. The only way to circumvent this life-endangering duty is to be declared insane—but a person who fears endangering his own life, obviously, must be sane, and thus fit for duty. This is Catch-22.
An organization that tolerates this circular logic in life-or-death matters is likely to practice it in lesser ways as well: Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder is so embroiled in black-market activities ( selling first-aid supplies at a profit and leaving wounded soldiers without necessary medications ) that he begins to believe his own flimflam. Major Major—no, that's his proper surname—evades his responsibilities by barring his office door and skulking through the window. 'Doc' Daneeka finds himself erroneously declared dead and everyone—including his family—happier for it. The other physicians look to their own interests, as do the law-enforcement investigators concerned with a flurry of scurrilous letters signed 'Washington Irving', while good-hearted Chaplain Tappman keeps his Faith through sheer denial.
A dramatic universe characterized by rampant fallacy ( 'If you're not guilty, then why are we questioning you?' snaps a CID interrogator. ) is an invitation to chaos, but under G. J. Cederquist's disciplined direction, the slapstick never tailspins out of control, and despite the cartoon proportions of the 39 personalities featured in Heller's stage adaptation, the perimeters set by their 13 portrayers never blur into shrillness.
Two hours-plus running time is a bit long for modern theater audiences, but the Steep Theatre ensemble keeps its madcap action crisp and swiftly-paced. And if such pronouncements as 'The sooner we get some casualties, the sooner we can make some progress,' or 'If we're going to get sentimental about every man who COULD get killed, we might just as well not HAVE a war!' sound eerily familiar, then Heller's satire has lost none of its timeliness.