'Catch-22' catches the spirit of the book at Curio Theatre Company in West Philly

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(Top center:) Doug Greene and (left to right:) Sarah Knittel, Aetna Gallagher, and Ashton Carter in “Catch-22,” through May 19 at the Curio Theatre Company.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s 1971 stage version of his 1962 novel, is running through May 19 at Curio Theatre Company. With dozens of characters, snaky plots, and wild language, this panoramic book might seem hard to bring to the stage. But Curio has earned wide repute in turning the literary into the theatrical. Here, with Claire Moyer’s sensitive direction, seven actors take on 35-plus roles with energy and humor.

Results are uneven. Not everyone is equally good in all roles. Sometimes the silliness threatens to run away with the show. But the whole is an appalling, funny, faithful account of Heller’s masterpiece.

Paul Kuhn’s clever set is a wall of filing cabinets and packing boxes. This serves as offices, boudoirs, hospital rooms, air bases, the streets of Rome. The stage floor is a map of wartime Europe, with the flying ranges of bombers plotted in concentric circles. Forties-era tunes, some satirical, pitch us into the time.

Chase Byrd plays bombardier John Yossarian with a softer side, less of the wiseguy of book and film. He’s the ultimate outsider/chorus, a former hero who has lost courage and wants out. His enemies are not the Germans but his commanding officers, who, aided by the maddening, circular catch-22, keep upping the number of bombing runs he must fly before he can go home. Undeceived, he says both, “That’s some catch, that catch-22,” and that catch-22 “doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t make any difference because everyone believes that it does.”

Ashton Carter steals the show. He plays Col. Cathcart, grinning soul of banal evil, fixed on becoming a general and making the cover of Life. “Why can’t we pray for something good, like a direct hit with all our bombs?” he asks the Chaplain (played with floundering hopelessness by Aetna Gallagher). Carter is just as good as silly Lt. Col. Corn and omnipotent mail clerk ex-Pfc. Wintergreen, and he stops the show as Snowden, who changes Yossarian’s life. Thanks to Carter, these wartime criminal misfits making lunatic, senseless decisions are all too real right now.

In fact, this production rings a lot of 2018 bells. Milo Minderbinder (Merri Rashoyan, in the best of her many roles) is the amoral profiteer who runs the black market “syndicate” in which “everybody has a share,” even the dead. Milo puts the industrial in military-industrial complex. “What’s good for Milo is good for the country,” Yossarian sighs, an acid echo of Milo’s hero, Calvin Coolidge.

Sarah Knittel plays two of the craziest roles. As the C.I.D. Man, bug-eyed for conspiracies everywhere, she sleuths a pointless case of letter-forging. She’s at her craziest as Nately’s Whore, who personifies Yossarian’s quip that sometimes everybody is trying to kill you.

Catch Curio’s Catch-22. If you’ve read the book, this will bring it back. If you haven’t, catch it: It’s a feast of nuts lingo, a potent protest against war, and a portrait of human beings caught in an impossible fix called life.

Theater

Catch-22

    • Catch-22. Through May 19 at the Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Avenue. Tickets: $20-$30. Information: 215-921-8243, curiotheatre.org.