Saturday, July 23, 2016

Butler **** A

Kudos to 59E59 Theaters for bringing this worthwhile production by the New Jersey Repertory Company, based in Long Branch, to New York. What playwright Richard Strand has written is an unlikely blend of biography, Civil War history, drama and comedy that is both entertaining and informative. Major General Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson) is an actual historical figure, whose long and varied career includes the incident depicted in the play. As a newly minted Union officer sent to take command of Fort Monroe in recently seceded Virginia, Butler must decide what to do with three runaway slaves who have arrived at the fort seeking sanctuary. The first scene, an extended exchange between Butler and his hapless adjutant Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), may initially appear to go on too long, but it cleverly sets up most of what follows. The leader of the runaway slaves is Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), a man who has paid dearly for his habit of running off at the mouth. When Mallory pleads his case with Butler, the two develop an unexpected kinship. Butler tries to find a way to get around the Fugitive Slaves Act so he will not have to hand over Mallory and the other two slaves to Major Cary (David Sitler), the prickly Confederate officer who has been sent to claim them. It hardly seems like promising material for comedy, but the play is very funny. The four characters are vividly drawn and well acted by the cast, all holdovers from the original production. Jessica L. Parks’s attractive set for General Butler’s office looks authentic, as do Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes. Joseph Discher’s direction is seamless. It adds up to a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.

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