By William Wolf

BUTLER  Send This Review to a Friend

Although the situation and confrontations are rather far-fetched, “Butler” is an entertaining, meaningful drama set in the state of Virginia at the outset of the American Civil War. Sharp writing by playwright Richard Strand and superb acting create tension and sparks, enabling an audience to get caught up in what is clearly an anti-slavery treatise.

The play, presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company and smartly directed by Joseph Discher, takes place at Fort Monroe, a Union bastion. We meet newly-arrived Major General Benjamin Butler, based on the real Union commander and played to the hilt by Ames Adamson, who overflows with bluster aimed first at Lieutenant Kelly, a stalwart Benjamin Sterling. The lieutenant reports that an escaped slave demands to see the general. Butler does not take kindly to demands and keeps exploding with outrage as the conversation thickens and the lieutenant attempts to navigate the relationship with his commander.

When we finally meet the slave, Shepard Mallory, who has shown up at the fort with two fellow escapees, there is an entertaining face-off between him and the general. John G. Williams portrays Mallory as a determined, arrogant individual who stands up for his rights and refuses to bow and scrape before the general, who has the power to send him back into captivity, which the laws at the time regarding slaves as property dictate that he should do. It is apparent that Mallory most likely would be executed if sent back.

The situation becomes a face-off between these two strong characters, and the playwright pumps plenty of witty lines into the discussion. While it may be hard to believe that such a confrontation could occur, the back and forth is vibrant, amusing and poignant. What Mallory wants is to serve the Union side while achieving his freedom. Butler is appalled at the slave’s nerve, but also duly impressed, especially by Mallory having learned to read and being clever with words, most notably with reference to the key term “contraband.”

The issue is forced when Major Cary (David Sitler) of the Southern side turns up to demand that Mallory be returned. Thus another confrontation ensues, with Butler, who has no use for the arrogant Cary, trying to find a way out despite his exasperation with Mallory, who won’t take no for an answer. When Butler tells Mallory he will be allowed to escape, he refuses to go, exclaiming that he would have no chance to survive on the run.

Williams’s acting as Mallory is so winsome that one may especially root for him to prevail, and also can be sympathetic to Butler, who, despite his short temper and thundering speech, is shown as a basically decent human being trapped in his time as the Civil War starts to unfold.

“Butler” provides plenty of food for thought, along with the fine performances, the issues raised and the humor that flourishes even when the stakes are so seriously high for so many. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed July 28, 2016.


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