03 August 2016


On 16 May 1861, Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818-93) was promoted to major general in the Army of the United States by Pres. Abraham Lincoln.  (The Civil War had started in earnest on 16 April when secessionist troops fired on the Union forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.)  The former Massachusetts lawyer, born in New Hampshire, was immediately dispatched to take command of Fort Monroe on the mouth of the James River in southeastern Virginia.  He arrived to take up his new post on Wednesday, 22 May—and the Virginia legislature ratified the vote to secede the very next day, joining South Carolina (seceded 20 December 1860), Mississippi (9 January 1861), Florida (10 January 1861), Alabama (11 January 1861), Georgia (19 January 1861), Louisiana (26 January 1861), Texas (1 February 1861), Arkansas (6 May 1861), and North Carolina (20 May 1861); of the ultimately 11 Confederate States, only Tennessee hadn’t yet seceded (it would do so on 8 June 1861). 

On the same day as Virginia’s official separation from the Union, three runaway slaves rowed across the inlet separating Union-held Fort Monroe from the Confederate stronghold at Sewell’s Point in Hampton Roads, all of 15 miles on the water, but an incomprehensible gulf in the mind and in politics, the gulf between slavery and freedom, between one world and another.  At least, that’s what the three men, Frank Baker, about 42; Shepard Mallory, 20; and James Townsend, 36, must have thought.  Presenting themselves to the fort’s commander, the escaped slaves requested sanctuary.  The three men, forced by their owner, rebel Colonel Charles King Mallory (1820-75), to build fortifications and artillery emplacements to oppose the Union fort, provided intelligence about Confederate fortifications, armaments, and troop strength. 

The men’s request for refuge at the fort, however, prompted Butler, known as an attorney for his ability to weave his way through any statute and discover a way to demolish his opponents’ arguments, to devise the innovative legal theory that these escaped slaves, because they’d been used to further the enemy’s war efforts, were “contraband of war,” no different from a canon, a musket, or a cavalry horse, and did not have to be returned despite the articles of war, the U.S. Constitution, and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that declared they must be.  This was an astonishing move for Butler, a staunch Union man but, at his own admission, no abolitionist.  He’d even voted for Jefferson Davis (who, by February 1861, was President of the Confederate States of America) against John C. Breckenridge at the 1860 Democratic Convention in Charleston as his party’s presidential nominee to run against Republican Abraham Lincoln. 

No sooner had the general declared the three runaways contraband, legally retained by the Union army, than a virtual flood of escaping slaves, having heard the story through a remarkably efficient slave grapevine, followed their example; on Sunday, the 26th, eight more escapees showed up at the fort’s gates and on the 27th, there were 47 more—including women, children, and old men.  Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, an army officer for all of four weeks by this time, became an unlikely hero of freedom from slavery a year-and-a-half before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  Lincoln ultimately endorsed Butler’s decision and commanders throughout the Union military adopted his practice regarding Southern slaves. 

(The general’s subsequent military career was mostly successful but undistinguished.  He was, in fact, considered by Southerners in areas he administered such as New Orleans as brutal and ruthless, attaining the sobriquet “Beast Butler.”  Even today, Butler’s a despised figure among some Southerners.  After the war, however, Benjamin Franklin Butler, who served in the Massachusetts state senate before the war, would go on to be elected to congress from Massachusetts from 1867 to 1875 and 1877 to 1879, and then served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1883 to 1884.  He ran for president in 1884 as the nominee of the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly parties but lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland; Butler came in a very distant fourth, behind not only Cleveland but Republican James G. Blaine and Prohibition Party candidate John St. John.  He returned to the practice of law, a profession in which he was deemed a brilliant practitioner, his difficulties in other fields of endeavor notwithstanding, and died in a Washington, D.C., court on 11 January 1893 at the age of 74.)

Having read about this bit of historical lore in a footnote in a biography of Abraham Lincoln, playwright Richard Strand (Clown, The Bug) was intrigued.  “The information was tantalizing because it didn't make logical sense,” insisted Strand. “I couldn't understand why an anti-abolitionist supporter of Jefferson Davis would take such a personally risky stand against slavery.”  Additional research didn’t solve the puzzle for the dramatist, so he decided to write a play about the momentous historical footnote and the man who perpetrated it; in 2012, that play became Butler, which premièred at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, on the Jersey Shore, from 12 June to 13 July 2014.  “Writing the play,” explained Strand, “was my attempt to find a plausible explanation for something that seemed inexplicable.”  The dramatist has acknowledged that he composed Butler to suggest one scenario of what might have occurred at Fort Monroe in May of 1861.

That NJ Rep staging, directed by Joseph Discher, eventually moved to New York City where it began previews as part of the 5A Season at the 59E59 Theaters on 15 July for an opening on the 27th, scheduled to run in Theater A until 28 August.  Though it’s my preference to see a play after it opens—I don’t like seeing productions that aren’t finished yet—my usual theater companion, Diana, and I went to Butler at its first preview on Friday, the 15th.  (For further description of 59E59 and its programs, see my report on “Summer Shorts 2015, Series A,” 12 August 2015.)  Prior to this New York première, there were independent productions of Butler in small theaters around the country, including the Peninsula Players Theatre in Fish Creek, Wisconsin (20-31 August 2014); the Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts (14 May-13 June 2015); the Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota (9 December 2015-5 March 2016); the Phoenix Theatre, Indianapolis (7 January-7 February 2016); the Detroit Repertory Theatre (7 January-13 March 2016); the Majestic Theater, West Springfield, Massachusetts (25 February-3 April 2016); and the Northlight Theatre, Skokie, Illinois (11 March-17 April 2016).

The plot of Butler is essentially the history I laid out above, though most of the play, said Strand, “is conjectural.”  Strand’s play begins with Major General Butler (Ames Adamson) at his desk in his office (designed by Jessica L. Parks, and lit by Jill Nagle) when he’s interrupted by Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), a young West Pointer who’d started in the army as a private, fighting in the Mexican War (1846-48) before attending the academy.  The general’s aide (the only character of the four in Butler who’s fictional, as far as I can determine) enters to inform the commandant that a “Negro slave” is demanding to speak with him.  Well, this sets Butler off on a tear (which I later realized was Butler’s style of courtroom cross-examination).  He’s “astonished,” he tells Kelly, in no uncertain terms, and demands that Kelly explain why he’s astonished and not merely surprised.  Because there’s a runaway slave in the fort and the general didn’t know it until now, guesses Kelly.  No, that would only be surprising, retorts Butler.  Because there are not one but three slaves in the fort?  No again.  

Because the slave—Kelly never asked the man’s name, which displeases Butler all the more—has “demanded” to speak with the commandant, not requested or asked.  Butler reminds Kelly that no later than the day before, he’d explained to the lieutenant that one thing that he most dislikes is people who make demands on him.  The only people who can do that, Butler elucidates, are President Lincoln; Secretary of State William Seward and other cabinet members; Gen. Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the army; any officer who outranks him . . . and, Kelly chimes in, the general’s wife.  But what really got Butler’s dander up, he instructed the young officer, was that Kelly had reported that the Negro slave had made this demand! 

By all accounts, General Butler was a rough, uncouth, and irascible man, and it seems that this initiating scene is meant to establish that personality in a slightly humorous way.  (Butler isn’t a comedy, but there are many funny lines and moments in it.)  In any case, the inadvisability of making demands on Butler is a leitmotif in Strand’s script.  Butler is reputed to have had one other character trait that’s important to the play’s unfolding—and which comes closest to explaining why this particular man took the action he did: he’s said to have had a soft heart.  So when he tells Kelly at first that he won’t see the slave and Kelly observes that if the men are sent back to their owner, they’ll likely be killed for escaping, the general hesitates.  He can’t offer the men sanctuary at the fort because that violates both the law and the articles of war, not to mention President Lincoln’s own statements about not interfering with slavery where it was legal.  But he can’t send them back to die, either.  So what can he do?  He orders Kelly to show the slave in, and we finally meet Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), who’s made himself the spokesman for the three asylum-seekers.  (We never see the other two men, though their names are mentioned more than once—as is the name Colonel Mallory, the slave-holding former judge to whom the men belong.)

Butler and Mallory (the question of whether Shepard and the rebel colonel are related is raised a few times because of their last names, but left unresolved) finally meet, and Butler becomes intrigued with the well-spoken man (he’s learned Butler’s full name from reading the crates with the general’s belongings that are scattered around the headquarters—he’d been taught to read against custom and law—and he uses the word “convoluted,” which actually makes Butler stop for a second or two) who has landed on the officer’s doorstep.  The two men engage in an unexpected and extraordinary battle of wills and wits.  Mallory, it turns out, is just as obstinate as Butler is—in fact, they are something of kindred spirits, which may be part of the reason Butler is impelled to find a way to help the three escapees.

Meanwhile, Butler reveals that he’s received word that the Confederates are sending an officer under a flag of truce to retrieve Colonel Mallory’s property.  That officer, not by coincidence Shepard Mallory reckons, is Maj. John B. Cary (1819-98), the colonel’s artillery expert who doubtlessly has been assigned to take advantage of the situation to gather information on Fort Monroe’s armaments and emplacements.  When Cary arrives, Butler’s decided to blindfold him, and it turns into a sight-and-sound gag off stage as he’s obviously guided by Kelly so that he bumps into furniture and open doors on his way to General Butler’s office.

When Major Cary (David Sitler) enters and is relieved of his blindfold, he proceeds to read the demands—oh, that word!—Colonel Mallory has sent with him.  Cary, whom Butler insists he met at the 1860 Convention when the then-Massachusetts state senator supported Jefferson Davis, steadfastly denies any acquaintance with the Union officer.  Uniformed like a Confederate peacock, in gloves he makes a elaborate display of removing and tall, black cavalry boots, his gray tunic embellished with a red sash around his waist and more gold braid on his sleeves than the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, carrying a cavalry hat with an impossibly broad brim, and wearing expansive side whiskers, Cary even refuses to take a glass of the general’s “particularly good” sherry with him.  This is something in which Butler apparently puts great store as he made Mallory take a glass earlier and will insist again at the end of the play.  (In addition to the sash, Sitler’s costume also has copious red trim signifying an artillery officer, and Cary may actually have been one, though I only found a few mentions of this on the ’Net.  Lieutenant Kelly wears an artillery officer’s uniform, too, though there’s no mention in the play—or the program—of his military specialty.  It may merely have been that the costumer, Patricia E. Doherty, liked the look of a blue uniform with red trim—although photos of most of the other productions of Butler that depict Kelly, show him in the red-trimmed uniform of an artilleryman.)  

So, making demands on him, insisting they never met, and refusing to drink with him, Cary has seriously ticked Butler off but good, which is certainly the second part of Strand’s reason for the general to deny the return of the fugitive slaves.  Nearly foaming at the mouth as Kelly puts the blindfold back on him, Cary is sent back to his colonel empty handed—bringing back neither useful intelligence nor the escaped slaves.  But now, Butler has to come up with a rationale for doing what he just did—or he and Kelly will face courts-martial and Mallory will be returned to face execution.

As the play ends, Butler has begun writing his dispatch justifying his actions to the president, secretary of war, and general-in-chief, and he, Kelly, and Mallory swear to keep the act secret, but we hear a large commotion on the parade ground outside the commandant’s office.  Kelly reports that eight more runaways have entered the fort—what we know, but they don’t, will be just the beginning of a flood.  (Historically, we also know that Butler’s “contraband decision” becomes the foundation of a general order for Union forces during the Civil War.)  The men drink a toast . . . “to contraband!” 

There’s little biographical information available on Strand.  He wrote his first play, a one act entitled Harry and Sylvia, while he was a college student in 1976.  He directed it himself and it won two national awards and was published by Hunter Press in Edinburgh, Scotland.  A full length version of the same play, called Clown, premiered at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in 1981.  His scripts have premièred at the Actors Theater of Louisville, GeVa Theatre, Victory Gardens, Steppenwolf, Mixed Blood, the Eugene O’Neill Center, and other venues.  The Bug, Strand’s most successful play so far, has been translated into five languages for productions in France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Italy, and the United States.

Strand is currently the chairman of the theater department, technical director, and set designer at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California (near Los Angels), where he also teaches playwriting and the history of theater; he lives in California with his wife.  Previously, he was production manager at Columbia College School of Dance in Chicago and at Centre East in Skokie, Illinois.  In addition to his plays, Strand’s written articles on technical theater that have been published in Dramatics magazine.  He has an MFA from the Playwright’s Workshop at the University of Iowa.

The New Jersey Repertory Company was founded in 1997 by husband-and-wife partners Executive Producer Gabor Barabas and Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas.  Located in Long Branch in Monmouth County on the New Jersey shore (about 55 miles south of New York City), the theater’s goal is the development and production of new plays.  Since its inauguration, New Jersey Rep has produced more than 90 plays in pursuit of this mission, including over 60 world premieres, in its small, 64-seat playhouse (on Broadway!), a few blocks west of the boardwalk.  (The company is currently negotiating to purchase two additional properties in Long Branch for an expansion of its services to the community with a movie house for art films and an art museum.)  The theater has committed itself to nurturing the work of both established and emerging writers and, maintaining an open-submission policy, receives scripts from throughout the U.S. and around the world.  In 2012 New Jersey Rep received a National Theater Company Award from the American Theatre Wing, sponsor of the Tony Awards, and 2013’s Broomstick, by New Orleans playwright John Biguenet, was nominated for the Steinberg Award by the American Theatre Critics Association.  The theater has also received several New American Plays Awards from the Edgerton Foundation of Beverly Hills, including one for the world première of Butler, which won the award. 

The problem I had with Butler is that Strand clearly never satisfactorily worked out his puzzle.  He hasn’t come up with an explanation for why Butler, the anti-abolitionist who voted for Jefferson Davis as his party’s presidential nominee, would invent a legalistic rationale for not returning escaped slaves to their “rightful owner.”  Butler’s entirely a semi-humorous treatment of the historical moment that has no real dramatic point.  If it weren’t largely fictionalized—the dialogue is imagined by Strand, and he’s invented one of the four characters—it would be a classroom role-play or a History Channel docudrama.  

The script is well enough written and the production is well done, however, and the performances are creditable without being exceptional.  As enjoyable as it is, though, Strand has relied on Butler’s reputed kind heart, hidden behind his peppery bluster, and his obvious exasperation with Major Cary’s arrogance to motivate the momentous action the general takes.  Though I compliment Strand on not telegraphing Butler’s soft-heartedness—it’s never mentioned by anyone, we just glean it from his response to the plight of Shepard Mallory and his companions—it and his irritation at Cary’s behavior are rather wan motivation for defying orders, the law, and the constitution.  (Okay, I’ll admit that the reason there isn’t a cogent explanation for Butler’s decision in the history books may well be that it was just peevishness and tender-heartedness that led him to it, but life isn’t drama, and real life isn’t necessarily dramatic.  To paraphrase something that George Bernard Shaw wrote which I quoted recently, it’s a playwright’s job to enhance the facts of history to make a story stageworthy.  As I said of George C. Wolfe’s remake of Shuffle Along in my report of 28 June, Butler isn’t a documentary play, but it is a history play, and even Shakespeare meddled with fact to make great drama of recorded events.) 

On the positive side, Strand has found wonderful ways to enliven history with humor without resorting to jokes and slapstick, or even ridicule.  (He may have let a little of the last slip into his portrait of Confederate Major Cary, who’s portrayed as something of a popinjay—though some of that’s surely the responsibility of Sitler and director Discher.)  As Aaron C. Thomas wondered in American Theatre, “The Civil War is an unlikely setting for a comedy.  After all, how do you mine humor from one of our nation’s bloodiest periods?  Can a play about America’s shameful legacy of slavery manage to shine light on a neglected corner of that story—and also get laughs?”  The answer appears to be yes.  

Strand believes that it’s the very situation depicted in Butler that is the basis of the humor.  The “very absurdity of slavery,” as AT’s Thomas put it, generates the comic circumstances.  “I was aware that both Butler and Cary (the Confederate officer) accept the absurd premise that one man can own another man,” explains the playwright.  “I knew that their acceptance of that premise would force them to defend things that were indefensible and, therefore, that portions of the play could become humorous.”  He’s not making fun of slavery or slaves, as some might fear at first blush; he’s making fun of people who twist themselves into pretzels to justify a tacitly absurd and indefensible practice—and the equally absurd lengths others found it necessary to go to in order to oppose it.

The humor, however, isn’t either a sidelight or a mask.  It doesn’t distract from or cover over the serious and, indeed, unpleasant truths inherent in the play’s situation.  In large part, it serves as the “spoonful of sugar” that helps the disturbing facts go down.  But some of the comedy acts as a spotlight—or perhaps a fluoroscope is a better image, letting us see things hidden behind the immediate circumstances.  In scene three, for instance, when General Butler notices that the runaway slave and his owner have the same last name, he asks, “Is he a relative of yours?”  It’s a laugh-line, made funnier by Shepard Mallory’s response: “Not as far as I know.  But I‘m a little hazy on just who my relatives are.  Colonel Mallory owns me.”  At the same time, though, without actually raising the issue, the exchange alludes to the practice among slave-owners to rape and father children by the African-American women they owned.  (Not all of the abhorrent realities of slavery and its era are handled with humor.  The whipping of slaves for minor and even perceived misdeeds is confronted straight-on when Mallory shows Butler the scars on his back and the general is genuinely shocked.  This launches a difficult and perceptive exchange about why people with power perpetrate violence on those they control.  It will be understandable if spectators start to think about Black Lives Matter and its cause of action.)

The writer’s also telescoped time enough to keep the story rolling—the real events took five days (plus the aftermath); the play runs two hours—even though the play’s mostly talk—some of it animated, granted.  Strand also wisely stays away from attempts to make the language sound like mid-19th-century prose, even as he’s also avoided obvious rhetorical anachronisms, so that we hear what the characters are saying rather than how they’re saying it.  As Thomas of American Theatre observed, Butler “shows how two men in a room can break each other’s defenses down, make each other (and the audience) laugh, and develop a respect for one another as intellectual and moral equals, no matter their official status.”  Butler isn’t great drama (or even good dramatic literature), but it does make good theater—Ken Jaworowski of the New York Times stated categorically a the time of the Long Branch début, “Just call it splendid”—especially in the hands of an accomplished director and cast.  (As a spotlight on an obscure moment in American history that ended up having far-reaching consequences, Strand’s play serves an honorable purpose beyond art.)

Though some reviewers and spectators will complain that Strand’s light-hearted rendering of history—especially such a weighty moment—is wrong-headed and flip, I find it endearing that a great historical decision may have been based on no more than one man’s prickly personality.  It recalls my response to the 1969 musical 1776 in which the decision to declare independence for Britain’s American colonies hung on the choice of one delegate in Philadelphia, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, to vote for independence because it was easier to maintain his historical anonymity as one of the many who voted in favor than as the one man whose vote defeated the proposal.  Wilson’s fellow Pennsylvanian John Dickinson asks, “And is that how new nations are formed—by a nonentity seeking to preserve the anonymity he so richly deserves?”  Well, in Strand’s view, the momentous determination not to return escaped slaves to their Confederate masters turned on a lone major general’s snap decision in a fit of pique at a hubristic secessionist.  How fundamentally, endearingly human!

Joseph Discher manages to keep the production on target, never letting the comedy overwhelm the serious theme but, conversely, not allowing the often dire aspects of the story to swamp the humor.  In Parks’s tight office set, a prop-cluttered space, Discher, who’s directed Butler twice before aside from the New Jersey début (the two Bay State stagings at the Barrington Stage and Majestic Theater), prompted the actors to move and behave completely naturally even when there were four men on stage together.  (Thanks to fight director Brad Lemons, Williams and Adamson even engage in a brief tussle in the cramped office—and pull it off rather nicely.)  The actors, however, all came off a little stiffly—far from historical animatronics, but not quite warm-blooded beings, either.  Even though Diana and I caught the very first preview of the New York run, I’d have thought after performing the month’s run in Long Branch they’d have been more comfortable in their roles.  Perhaps the two-year lay-off was more than the Off-Broadway rehearsal period could overcome (which is why I prefer to see plays after they open).  Adamson and Sterling’s opening scene, for example, was brittle and artificial as Butler and Kelly fenced through the general’s response to the announcement of Mallory’s arrival at the fort.  It seemed not only contrived, but as if the two actors didn’t quite believe what they were saying.  Some of Sitler’s interview with Adamson, especially Cary’s and Butler’s first lunges and parries, was similarly remote and canned.  I hope that the cast works its way out of this rabbit hole by 27 July, but I lay the problem at the feet of Discher.

Parks’s set is a model of a busy man’s cluttered work place, filled to overflowing with the boxes of his newly-arrived personal belongings, his papers and books stuffed into his secretary and other nooks and crannies, a desk at center-left, several chairs, a wash basin and pitcher on a stand, the requisite flag in a corner (33 stars?—it was draped so I couldn’t tell) and portrait of Lincoln on the wall, a map of the fort and its environs, and the table with the sherry decanter and glasses up center.  The room is lit effectively by Nagle and the realism of the production’s look is completed convincingly by Doherty’s three soldiers’ uniforms and Mallory’s earth-toned garb (perhaps a little clean and neat for a slave who’s lit out in the midst of a day at hard construction labor).  The costume designer outdid herself with Major Cary’s foppish look, however, including his outlandish mutton chops—closely resembling the famous side whiskers of Union General Ambrose Burnside, namesake of ‘sideburns.’  They defy gravity!  (Wigs and, I presume, prosthetic whiskers, are designed by Leah J. Loukas.)

(A totally irrelevant sidebar: Back in the 1960s, when the Civil War was marking its centenary, there were hundreds of articles and books, both fiction and non-fiction—and many combinations of the two—on the war and its many personalities.  I devoured a lot of these, including a slim volume called If the South Had Won the Civil War by  MacKinlay Kantor.  I remember one article, published where and by whom I don’t recall, in which the author did a survey of Civil War generals and correlated the volume of their whiskers with their success on the battlefield.  Statistically, the writer demonstrated, the most successful field commanders on both sides were those with the most facial hair.  In the majority of match-ups, the commander with the biggest beard beat his less hirsute opponent.  General Burnside, with his distinctive side whiskers but no beard, fared less well than his more heavily bearded counterparts.  By this standard, General Butler would be at a decided disadvantage since he wore only a small mustache and no beard or side whiskers at all.  Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were fairly evenly matched in the beard department, but Jefferson Davis’s goatee was no match for Abraham Lincoln’s chin whiskers.  I just think it’s a fun factoid.)

Adamson’s Butler is appropriately stuffy and petty when we meet him, but the actor manages incrementally to reveal the general’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, as well as his shrewd legal intellect.  Despite some line problems on the night I saw the play, Adamson gives us a solid portrait of the title character’s complex personality as he deals with the dilemma that could at the very least end his military career, land him in a stockade, and potentially mean the death of his accidental charges.  As the slave Mallory, Williams seems to have taken some liberties with his status and the era—encouraged, to be sure, by Strand’s script and Discher’s direction—but creates a believable figure in extremis, a man who knows that he’s caught between the rock of the law and convention and the hard place of summary execution at the hands of his former master.  Strand has made Mallory not just intelligent, even astute—he reads Butler pretty accurately and knows himself pretty clearly as well—but self-educated and Williams plays these characteristics forthrightly.  Yet he doesn’t overlook the more elemental, emotional aspects of the character’s situation, not only when he shows Butler the flogging scars he bears but his panic when the general tumbles to the fact that this slave can read and Mallory fears that the officer will reveal his secret.  Strand doesn’t say so in the script, but if we know that a slave who’s been taught to read—and any person who teaches one—is a punishable offense in the South, we can understand Williams honest reaction to this possibility.

Sterling’s Lieutenant Kelly is really a glorified messenger, bringing the world outside the commandant’s office in, but Strand has given the young officer enough of a character for the actor to build upon.  Sterling allows us to see the touch of disdain the West Pointer who came up through the ranks holds for the general who used influence and political pressure to gain a lofty rank (at the time, Major General was the highest rank in the Union army) and a command and even more strongly, the contempt he had for Shepard Mallory and his slave companions.  But Sterling also shows us how, over the several days of contact, he comes to respect Mallory, a transformation that comes somewhat abruptly in the script, but which the actor pulls off successfully.  In Sitler’s hands, Major Cary is stiff-necked and condescending.  Although the character was a schoolteacher before the war (Cary was headmaster at a military academy and in the 1880s was appointed superintendent of Richmond’s school system), Sitler, who strongly resembles actor Željko Ivanek,  plays him as an aristocratic member of the FFV, looking down not only on the black slaves but Northerners like Butler.  While Sitler’s Southern accent (and the Tidewater region of Virginia, where Cary and Colonel Mallory came from, has a very distinct accent of its own, derived, many believe, from the 17th-century English spoken by the original British settlers) was a little strained, his characterization of Major Cary was vivid and solid, making him a viable foil of the testy Butler—and a credible motivation for the general’s refusal to turn the slaves over to him for repatriation.

Since I saw the play early in its preview run, I waited until opening to survey the reviews.  That also meant that not all the weeklies and monthlies had posted notices yet, so the pool of reviews was shallower than it might have been later in the play’s run.  Show-Score, which included in its average rating the coverage of the out-of-town productions, posted only eight reviews from the 59E59 New York première.  (My round-up will include a larger sampling of press coverage, and I’ve recalculated Show-Score’s rating to exclude the reviews of performances beyond New York.)  The website’s review collection,  all highly positive (89%) except one (11%), averages out to a fairly high score of 86.

The New York Times merely reran excepts from Ken Jaworowski’s 2014 review of the 2014 Long Branch première.  After acknowledging, “It’s hard to categorize ‘Butler.’  The play is part comedy, part historical drama and part biography, often all at once, and sometimes none of those,” the “Paper of Record” repeated the reviewer’s declaration that it’s “splendid.”  Jaworowski reported, “The beauty of the script . . . is how it approaches these thorny topics.  In short, it’s a hoot.”  The Timesman explained, “Rather than dry exposition or long-winded discussions, these men use wordplay that is by turns sarcastic, droll and witty.”  He praised Adamson for “a powerhouse performance” and Williams as “smooth.”  Jaworowski summed up by affirming, “At the end, it’s still not clear how to classify this two-hour show. . . .  Only one category really matters to theatergoers: good play.  Into that slot, ‘Butler’ fits effortlessly.”  (The full text of the 2014 notice is on line at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/nyregion/a-review-of-butler-in-long-branch.html.)

The Times was the only print outlet that published a review while I was compiling this survey.  The remaining notices were all on websites.  Carole Di Tosti called the play “superb” on Theater Pizzazz, adding that it’s “tightly directed.”  Sterling’s Lieutenant Kelly is “played with vigor and likeability,” said Di Tosti, “Adamson is a knockout” as Butler, and Williams’s Mallory is “wonderfully portrayed.”  The “plot development is neither pat nor obvious,” the TP reviewer reported, and “set-up in the extremely capable hands of” Discher.  “The play is full of explosive confrontations when Butler and Mallory go head to head,” Di Tosti added, thanks to “Strand’s brilliant writing.”  In conclusion, the TP writer declared, “The production is just stunning!  Butler is marvelous theater.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer characterized Strand as “shrewd” and his “talk between Butler and Mallory” as “both amusing and witty.”  Sommer predicted that Butler “will have a solid life” ahead of it and that “audiences will respond to” it. 

Samuel L. Leiter characterized Butler as “both informative and highly entertaining” and an “engaging historical comedy” on his website, Theatre’s Leiter Side.  “The vibrant verbal volleys between Mallory and Butler,” reported Leiter, “invest the piece with wit and wisdom” and “Strand has comedic fun playing with the relationships among the” three military men and the fugitive slave.  Praising the physical production, Leiter cautioned, however, that the play’s “style is heightened for dramatic effect, its tone is mildly anachronistic, and its details conflated, so you have to take much of it with a grain of salt.”  Philip Dorian of Scene on Stage asserted, “Rarely has a slice of history been as entertainingly portrayed as in Butler.”  “Deftly directed by Joseph Discher,” continued Dorian, “Strand’s characters evolve from mutual hatred to grudging respect and even gestures of friendship and equality.”  With compliments for all the actors, the SoS reviewer concluded, “Making imaginary or real characters so sympathetic, so funny and so relevant, is damn good playwriting no matter the source.”

On Broadway World, Marina Kennedy dubbed Butler a “comedic-drama” with an “artful script,” “meticulous direction,” and “four excellent actors,” and affirmed that “the show is a wonderfully staged, unforgettable story of humanity.”  Kennedy reported, “The cast of Butler captures the spirited, intense, often humorous dialogue that makes this show completely captivating,” adding kudos to each member.  Her overall assessment of Butler was, “More than an entertaining show, it is a significant piece of theater and a timeless exploration of social conscience and individual responsibility.”  Howard Miller of Talkin’ Broadway called Butler a “glittering seriocomic play” that’s “amusing stuff, but rather puzzling” at its start.  Strand, however, “has taken an actual historic event and characters and turned it into an engrossing, non-pedantic play,” affirmed Miller, adding, “More surprising, the play is delightfully funny, packed with wit, farce, and slapstick.”  Of the staging, the TB review-writer said that “under Joseph Discher's sprightly direction,” all four characters are “splendidly realized.”  He concluded, “All told, this is a terrific show.”

TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart suggested that Butler “might just be the funniest play ever written about Civil War-era slavery.”  The play, however, “is simultaneously thought-provoking and sidesplitting,” continued Stewart.  Stewart went on to make some astonishing comparisons, too: “the physical style of performance . . . owes much to classic sitcoms like The Odd Couple and I Love Lucy,” observed the TM writer, but “Adamson and Williams . . . play their scenes as if they were performing Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.”  David Roberts labeled the play “scintillating” on Theatre Reviews Limited, in which Strand “delineates [the] conflicts carefully and—with the help of history—creates an admirable level of authenticity.”  Within Strand’s “well-written script,” Adamson’s and Williams’s “performances could not be more irresistible” as directed by Discher “with passion and sensitivity and brings out the best in his talented ensemble cast.”

The sole negative notice was David Barbour’s on Lighting and Sound America, in which the writer asked, “Do we really need a boulevard comedy about slavery?”  Barbour contended that Strand “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,” and he attested that it made him feel “queasy.”  Describing the opening scene between General Butler and Lieutenant Kelly as “remarkably unfunny,” because “the playwright wastes pages of dialogue” comprising “endless back-and-forth.”  The L&S writer labeled the scene “tiresome, one of the least felicitous examples of exposition in recent memory.”  Barbour felt that “Strand never effectively makes the case that a bond exists between” Mallory and Butler and, further, the reviewer insisted that “there's a pervasive feeling that the characters are following the playwright's dictates rather than their own hearts and minds.”  He found that “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.”  Barbour praised the design and production team, but had only grudging compliments for the actors and director—blaming Strand for their deficiencies.  The review-writer concluded by noting that “throughout Butler, there's a nagging question of taste.”  Observing that the “99% white” audience at the performance he attended “ate it all up with a spoon,” Barbour posited, “I suspect that a black audience wouldn't be nearly as amused.”

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