THE BASICS: This recent vintage (2014) historical comedy by Richard Strand plays weekends at the Kavinoky Theatre, through March 25th. Robert Waterhouse directs a cast of four. BUTLER, with its single intermission, runs approximately two hours.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The action takes place at Fort Monroe in Virginia during the first days of the Civil War. Benjamin Butler, lawyer and politician, has been newly minted as a Major General by President Lincoln, and assigned to command this Union outpost in the seething, newly seceded state. His young Lieutenant, a West Point graduate named Kelly, bursts into the office to inform him that three runaway slaves seeking sanctuary/freedom have already been admitted to the fort. Moreover, their representative, Shepard Mallory, demands to speak with him! The flummoxed Butler eventually complies, and ultimately begins to take a liking to the audacious, peculiar Mallory. What’s a quirky, lawyer-General with closet liberal leanings to do? Return these slaves to their “proper” owner? Or set a bold new path for the still-equivocating United States?
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: A comedy about slavery? you may be thinking. Surely not! But the answer is: yes, and a damned good one! Playwright Strand is so skillful in his handling of the material and with the actual verbiage, that BEN BUTLER is pretty much a constant delight. Don’t expect guffaws, however. A lot of the writing is puckish, droll, the sort of thing that this particular reviewer really relishes. The play stands front and center here, and is certainly the main reason for you to attend.
Happily, the cast really puts it over. The ever reliable John Fredo brings a whole range of nice details to the title character, a man of many facets and curious contradictions. Butler’s public life, spanning decades, is really most remarkable. I suggest you Google him at some point, as Strand provides us with merely a snapshot.
Fredo is well complimented by Christopher Evans, as his heavily criticized, yet solicitous Lieutenant. Their back-and-forths, often about seeming trifles, are priceless. And Evans’ felicitous transformation by the play’s end is one of its greatest pleasures.
Patrick Coleman’s Shepard Mallory is pretty fair, but on the “light” side. I would have liked a more deliberate approach, with more sleeping power and flashing anger from him. Tom Loughlin brings a simple, sullen disdain to the role of the Confederate commander, Major Cary. In fairness, there isn’t much else to the part. He does get terrific mileage out of those white kid gloves of his, however!
Kudos to Director Waterhouse, for keeping it all a-bubble, and to whoever had the wisdom to pick this none-too-promising-on-the-face-of-it, relatively unknown work. (Would that be Mr. Waterhouse, as well?). Geoffrey Tocsin’s recorded background music, small ensemble folk/military, is a definite plus. The set and costumes are of good quality. Small note to wig designer Dave Bova: can something be done to help out Mr. Fredo, whose present appliance has a cheesy, caveman quality?
IN SUM: Delightful play, consistently funny and thoughtful, but never preachy. The Kav has done a very nice job with it. Well worth a visit!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!