by Raphael Badagliacca
BUTLER reminds us that a play is made out of words and that the words play out in a confined space. Specific words and the particular space where one happens to be are enlisted in a large way to advance the action of this Civil War comedy-drama.
It’s the very beginning of the war, the cantankerous Major General Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson), a lawyer by civilian trade, has been installed as commander of Fort Monroe in Virginia, shortly after that state has seceded from the union. He is sensitive to certain words and enamored of others. The word “demand” riles him while the word “astonishment” rolls off his lips with pleasure.
He is “astonished” when news of the “demands” of a runaway slave reaches his ears by way of his West Point educated adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly (Ben Sterling) . Three slaves have sought out the confined space of the fort he newly commands as sanctuary. We will meet one of them, Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), who, when he is offered the chance to run free, explains that running has always been easy but finding a place to run to is the difficulty, which is why the trio has arrived at the fort.
General Butler has a problem. While the country is at war fighting for a principle, that principle is not yet established. As a commander with a legal background he is bound to uphold the current law, which would require the return of the slaves to their owners who happen to be in the Confederate army.
The general’s dilemma is exacerbated by Mallory’s personality, intelligence and reasoned take on his and the commander’s sudden situation. There is laugh out loud comedy in their exchanges as there is in the dialog between Butler and Lieutenant Kelly, and a lot if it fixates on certain words. We would have to say that the general is “astonished” that the slave’s vocabulary includes certain multi-syllabic words that seem to imply that he has had a mentor.
When Butler is unsure where his next thought process should go, he lubricates its movement with a glass of sherry of which he liberally “demands” his guests partake, including Mallory and Confederate Major Cary (David Sitler), who has come to take back the runaway slave.
Playwright Richard Strand’s dialogue is funny and impressive. He makes brilliant use of what stand-up comedians refer to as “call backs” – the casual introduction of a word or idea and then repeatedly calling it back as the performance proceeds. This creates an attractive sense of coherence, a growing inside joke, almost as if by remembering the previous references the audience feels it has a hand in creating the humor. This very appealing technique is delivered masterfully.
Pairs of conversations – between Butler and Mallory and between Butler and Kelly – are comic and intelligent. Butler and Mallory both have keen legal minds, the one schooled and the other not, but both hold their own. Ames Adamson as General Butler is present every minute of the play. There is no exchange that does not include him; he is tireless and brilliant; we can see the wheels of his mind turning. The opening scene is at times a bit “wordy,” but imagine Ralph Kramden with a law degree and you’ll get a sense of how his dialogue with Kelly as Norton proceeds and succeeds.
It’s hard to imagine anything about the Civil War being funny, but this play, inspired by true events, has shown us just that in an intelligent, dramatic way.
Written by Richard Strand, directed by Joseph Discher
With: Ames Adamson, John G. Williams, David Sitler, and Ben Sterling.
Produced by New Jersey Repertory Company (Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas, Executive Producer Gabor Barabas) by special arrangement with Eric Falkenstein, Czekaj Artistic Productions, Ken Wirth, and Jamie deRoy/Catherine Adler.
Set design & props, Jessica Parks; lighting designer, Jill Nagle; sound designer, Steven Beckel, costume designer, Patricia E. Doherty; wig design, Leah J. Loukas; fight choreographer, Brad Lemons; production stage manager, Rose Riccardi.
At 59E59 Theaters through August 28. Tuesday – Thursday at 7 PM; Friday at 8PM, Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM; Sunday at 3 PM. Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.