Film

Civil Bluster: Vaudevillian Repartee Overtakes Human Stakes in ‘Butler’

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The titular character of Richard Strand’s surprisingly upbeat Civil War comedy is the real-life Union Army major general Benjamin Franklin Butler, but he’s not the one whose future depends on the play’s outcome. That would be Shepard Mallory, one of three escaped Virginia slaves who in 1861 showed up at Fort Monroe requesting asylum. In defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, Butler let them stay as freemen, arguing that they qualified as contraband seized from the enemy.

All of that actually happened. But in the play, Butler (Ames Adamson, affecting a hoity-toity Frasier Crane accent) only comes up with his scheme after meeting with Mallory (John G. Williams, at once sardonic and desperate). The action hinges emotionally on the mirrored
personalities of slave and general: Both
are brash to mask deeper fears. But the script’s blustery, almost vaudevillian repartee glides over the fundamental differences between their situations. And apart from Williams’s layered performance, the cast of Joseph Discher’s staging for the New Jersey Repertory Company seems content to play for laughs.

This is especially true in the second act, when a Confederate officer (David Sitler) comes to collect the escaped slaves and Butler manages to outfox him. The historical Butler did help to abolish slavery in this way, but Strand’s preoccupation with wily one-upmanship and clever legal wrangling cuts short any deeper examination of the morality of treating humans as belongings or, in Butler’s phrase, as “implements of war.” At the pivotal moment, the man whose life is at stake isn’t even in the room.

Butler

Directed by Joseph Discher

59E59 Theaters

59 East 59th Street

212-753-5959, 59e59.org

Through August 28

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