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Theatre in Review: Butler (New Jersey Repertory Company/59E59)

John G. Williams, Ames Adamson

Do we really need a boulevard comedy about slavery? Regardless, we now have one in Butler. Richard Strand -- who, I hasten to add, seems to have the very best intentions -- has aims to illuminate a little-known piece of Civil War history in the manner of, say, Kaufman and Hart or Garson Kanin, an ambition that, on the face of it, seems weirdly out of step with our times. It's true the audience at the performance I attended responded to Butler with delight. So why did I feel so queasy?

The title character, Major General Benjamin Butler, is an attorney who, at the beginning of the Civil War, has been given a Union army commission and is assigned to Fort Monroe, in Virginia -- enemy territory, since the state has opted for secession. Wartime or not, Strand is in no hurry to get down to business. In the remarkably unfunny opening passage, Butler's adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly, announces that a "negro" slave has appeared, "demanding" to speak with him. Rather than bringing the characters together, the playwright wastes pages of dialogue while Butler expresses his "astonishment" at this news, followed by endless back-and-forth about the slave's time of arrival, his name, the true meaning of the word "demand" (a word that rouses Butler to a fury), and whether Kelly, having just seen the slave, likes him. The one useful fact to emerge from all this is that even in the midst of conflict, it is illegal not to return slaves to their masters -- aka the enemy. The scene as a whole, however, is tiresome, one of the least felicitous examples of exposition in recent memory.

When the slave, named Shepard Mallory, finally enters, he confounds Butler on several counts: He is well-spoken and -- although he denies it -- literate. His back is covered with enormous scars, the result of an inability to keep his caustic tongue in check. Nevertheless, it takes another two full scenes of prevaricating dialogue to establish the situation: Shepard wants Butler to provide him and his companions with sanctuary. It is, he notes, a fair trade: All three runaways have built fortifications for the South's army and can do the same for the Union; in addition, Shepard has valuable information to impart about the weaknesses in the South's defenses. None of this impresses Butler, who replies that a rebel officer is coming to collect Shepard and his companions the following day. Still, Shepard puts his faith in Butler. The reason? "I think you like me," he says.

I beg to differ. There's little in the previous scene to indicate that Butler sees Shepard as anything other than a problem he dearly wishes would go away. Admittedly, the officer is oddly fascinated with the slave's skill at repartee and he may be morally shocked by the proof of Shepard's physical mistreatment, but Strand never effectively makes the case that a bond exists between the two men. And why should it? Butler's diction and manners are very much of another time; he often sounds like the actor Lionel Barrymore in one of his foxy-grandpa roles in MGM films of the '30s. With his taste for debate and knack for cracking wise, Shepard is more plausible as a runaway from the 21st century, not an escapee from an antebellum plantation. (If this attractive, mentally sharp, healthy-looking specimen were an authentic product of slavery, then Bill O'Reilly's recent ghastly comments -- that some slaves were well looked-after -- wouldn't seem so heinous.) There's no plausible way of knitting these two distinct sensibilities into anything like an authentic relationship. Throughout the first half of Butler, there's a pervasive feeling that the characters are following the playwright's dictates rather than their own hearts and minds. Would Butler, knocked to the ground by Shepard, really cover up the incident before Lieutenant Kelly?

The play finds a groove of sorts in the second act, when Major Cary, of the Rebel army, shows up to retrieve the erring slaves. As Shepard cannily points out, nobody sends such a high-ranking officer for this task unless he is also an artillery specialist planning on checking out his enemy's strengths and weaknesses. What follows is a tense negotiation in which Butler outfoxes Cary on all counts, saving Shepard by the use of a novel legal device that I am loath to reveal -- although you can read about it, and how it became a standard army practice for the rest of the war, on Wikipedia. Even so, the second act's clever construction and sometimes witty dialogue are undermined to the degree that they require soft-pedaling the horrors of slavery and minimizing the crimes of those who supported it. If the entire South was as easily hoodwinked as Major Cary, we would have never ended up at Gettysburg and Antietam.

The director, Joseph Discher, can't do much with the interminable early scenes, but, under the limitations imposed here, his handling of the second act is fairly solid. In the title role, Ames Adamson, who looks a great deal like the real Butler, gives some pretty overripe line readings at first, but he also earns some honest laughs when working his wiles against Cary. John G. Williams does about as well as anyone could as Shepard, who isn't so much a character as a playwright's conceit. Benjamin Sterling underplays skillfully as the poker-faced Lieutenant Kelly. David Sitler stops just short of caricature as Major Cary, but he also displays solid comic timing.

The production, from the Long Branch-based New Jersey Repertory Company, is handsome. Jessica L. Parks' brick-and-wood interior, depicting Butler's office, is a model of period detail. Jill Nagle's lighting creates a number of time-of-day looks, using the set's rather small window to create late afternoon sunsets and moonlit night skies. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes -- both the military uniforms and Shepard's rags -- look authentic. Steve Beckel's sound design includes a number of period tunes, played mostly on fiddles, along with a key effect of disorder in the yard just outside Butler's office.

But throughout Butler, there's a nagging question of taste: Is this racially fraught moment really the right time for a reassuring comic fairy tale about the ugliest mass crime in American history? I will add that the audience at my performance -- which was 99% white -- ate it all up with a spoon. I suspect that a black audience wouldn't be nearly as amused.

The last time, to my knowledge, that anyone tried to play slavery for easy laughs was in Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, a 1968 Broadway comedy with an admittedly very different premise: A guilty Jewish liberal hires himself out as a "slave" to a black man. A quick flop, it did nothing for the reputations of David Steinberg, Louis Gossett, Cicely Tyson, Diane Ladd, and Sidney Poitier, who directed. As Clive Barnes noted in his review, slavery is no laughing matter. In the hot, hot summer of 2016, that remains truer than ever. -- David Barbour

(28 July 2016)

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