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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 27, 2016

John G. Williams and Ames Adamson
Photo by Carol Rosegg

At the start of Richard Strand's glittering seriocomic play Butler, opening tonight at 59E59, you may think you are watching one of those comedies about the foibles of the upper class, the kind where servants talk to masters with thinly-disguised dry sarcasm. It's amusing stuff, but rather puzzling. Because we are not in some nineteenth century London drawing room awaiting the arrival of Lady Bracknell, but in a nineteenth century Union fort in Virginia in the very early days of the Civil War.

General Butler (Ames Adamson) is newly ensconced as the commanding officer at Fort Monroe. He is not a career military man but has obtained the appointment owing to his connections and President Lincoln's immediate need to quickly quash the rebellion by the Southern states. The "servant" here is his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), a West Point graduate who takes his own military career most seriously and who can barely keep a civil tongue in his head when being lectured to by the newcomer, who until very recently was a civilian lawyer.

General Butler does come off as a bit of a windbag, going on and on about how "astonished" he is to find himself being interrupted with something he has no interest in. It seems a trio of runaway slaves has appeared at the fort, and one of them "demands" to speak with the general about being granted sanctuary. General Butler cannot believe what he is hearing; no one makes demands of him, he assures the lieutenant, other than the President, those above him in military rank, and his wife.

In the end, and against his better judgment, the general agrees to meet with the slave, Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), with the intention of sending him back, per the requirements set out by the Fugitive Slave Act. He is sympathetic in principle, but, as he puts it, "I am sworn to uphold the law. I cannot break the law, even if I disagree with the law."

What he hasn't counted on, however, is Shepard Mallory, a man whose feisty demeanor, determination, and ability to hold his own in any argument fly in the face of anything the general ever imagined he would encounter from a slave. As the two spar, you might want to roll your eyes at Butler's query: "Are all Negroes like you?" But the question is genuine, rising from the general's isolated worldview. And although Mallory answers with sarcasm, it becomes the start of a surprising relationship that leads to Butler being forced to confront and be held accountable to his purported values. Talk may be cheap, but talk is the coin of the realm for lawyers, and we discover that General Butler is a very good one. How good, he proves in a meeting between him and a confederate major (David Sitler), who has come under a flag of truce to claim the slaves. It's probably not too much of a spoiler to report that the major leaves chastened and empty-handed.

Butler clearly is dealing with a very serious subject, one that resounds to this day. Black lives mattered in 1861 no less than they do now. In telling this story, the playwright has accomplished two fairly remarkable things. First, he has taken an actual historic event and characters and turned it into an engrossing, non-pedantic play. Both General Butler and Shepard Mallory were real people, and the actions taken on behalf of fugitive slaves at Fort Monroe became an important step in the road to emancipation. In the play, Mallory shows himself to be a hero ten times over, but as General Butler evolves, a new hero and leader emerges.

More surprising, the play is delightfully funny, packed with wit, farce, and slapstick that rarely seem out of place with the content. Comedy may be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, but it also humanizes things in ways that a straightforward history play would be unable to do. Each of the characters, including the Confederate officer, is splendidly realized, and the production by the New Jersey Repertory Company is first-rate all around, with great ensemble work by the four-man cast, under Joseph Discher's sprightly direction. All told, this is a terrific show for history buffs and for anyone who can appreciate the savvy mixture of a serious topic with a comic touch.

Through August 28
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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