Friday, August 5, 2016

Off-Broadway Review—Richard Strand's “Butler”

Written by Richard Strand; directed by Joseph Discher
Performances through August 28, 2016
59 E 59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Williams and Adamson in Butler (photo: Carol Rosegg)

On the heels of J.T. Rogers’s Oslo—a splendid three-hour historical drama as riveting and absorbing as the best thrillers—comes Richard Strand’s Butler, which, though more modest in scope (and length: it’s about two hours), is an accomplished dramatization of actual events that’s exciting and immediate.

Although his subject—the Civil War—is more remote than the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine, Strand invests Butler with passion and incisiveness, and his good old-fashioned dramaturgy makes for an intelligent and thought-provoking play.

Butler’s eponymous Union Major General protagonist—who has just taken over Virginia’s Fort Monroe at the beginning of the War Between the States in the spring of 1861—must immediately deal with a burgeoning crisis: should he return three slaves who escaped from the Confederate army and came to the fort to find shelter—and, they hope, freedom—in the hands of the Union army?

Strand is able, in the space of two hours, to bring to life each of his characters—Butler, escaped slave Shepard Mallory, Butler’s adjutant Lieutenant Kelly, and the Confederate Major Cary, who arrives to take the slaves back—and allow them to argue succinctly (if at times wrongheadedly) about their own points of view on slavery and property, secession and the war, and President Lincoln’s directive governing the return of escaped slaves.

At times, Strand doesn’t entirely trust his material, allowing his characters to banter aimlessly like a TV sitcom, but such occasional flat stretches don’t hurt the drama’s forward momentum. For the most part, the dialogue feels real and true, not simply sounding like mouthpieces of the author, who finds levity enough to balance the serious subjects under discussion.

Smartly, Strand does not bend his subject matter to shoehorn in obvious parallels to our own continuing racial divide; audiences will tease out connections for themselves, as when Butler refuses Cary’s demand to return the slaves with a comment about the Confederacy’s hypocrisy: “Virginia has claimed to be no longer a part of the United States. She has made that claim and I will take her at her word.”

On Jessica L. Parks’s wonderfully detailed small-scale set of Butler’s office, Joseph Discher’s straightforward direction is complemented by a quartet of marvelous performances: David Stitler’s amusingly arrogant Major Cary, John G. Williams’ simultaneously confident and desperate Shepard Mallory, Benjamin Sterling’s likably bemused Kelly, and Ames Adamson’s enjoyably larger-than-life Major General.

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