“Ben Butler” is a play that will offer a lot of fun to a lot of people during its run at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham, through February 8.
The play is based on an actual incident which gives it a serious theme. It’s about the terminology and thus the treatment of slaves as property during the Civil War.
The comedy comes from showing the frustrations of those trying to define the issue. Much of the fun comes at mocking the thinking of those with power.
Even the good guys are hindered by subliminal bigotry, supported by the distinctions of class.
Despite the potential to be both funny and thoughtful, it really doesn’t work that way as the play and the production are filled with problems.
The play is wordy, there’s little dramatic tension and if you can’t predict the exact outcome, there is very little suspense about it not ending well. But, it’s one of those Teflon-plays where the dramatic flaws do not interfere with the fun. Go figure
Major-General Ben Butler has recently taken command of a strategic fort located in Virginia. The night before the play begins, Virginia officially secedes from the Union. That morning three runaway slaves show up demanding Butler offer them sanctuary. By law, it is something the general cannot grant.
Playwright Richard Strand immediately sets a confusing tone in the first two scenes. In the expositional and repetitive first scene, Butler berates and humiliates his adjunct, Lieutenant Kelly. Kelly is a career soldier, a West Point graduate and a battlefield veteran. Butler is a political appointee, who has been in the army for only three months.
His abusive treatment of Kelly appears mean-spirited and seems the action of a man flaunting his authority by tearing down others.
James Wild’s humorous reactions that show Kelly as a confused but loyal subordinate helps relieve the harshness of Butler’s behavior. But it’s an uncomfortable opening that makes Butler difficult to admire.
In the second scene, Butler meets with the slave Shepard Mallory, who is described as a person who you will despise and hate within minutes after meeting him. Oddly, at the meeting, the stern general immediately grants Mallory permission to call him Ben.
Making the moment more incongruous is that Mallory’s clothes are immaculate and make him look like an African-American version of Huck Finn. He is played by Michael A. Lake as a charming, intelligent and articulate individual. Missing is the man’s edge and obnoxious arrogance. He’s certainly not a hateful type of person.
However, once again, the clever use of language generates a lot of laughter. Fortunately, it does so without diminishing the fact that if Mallory is returned to his owner, he will likely be killed.
For about half the presentation’s 90-minute length, the production plays like a version of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air visits F Troop.”
Chris Foster, who plays Butler as an egocentric bully, isn’t helped by an ill-fitting uniform that makes him look unmilitary. Too, director Patrick White’s blocking rarely places him behind the desk that dominates the stage. Denied these two symbols of power, Butler appears inept, and Foster must depend on his excellent comic instincts to command the stage.
However, after a physical altercation with Mallory, Butler finally takes charge.
He becomes an authority figure and shows a brilliant mind and a quick wit. From that point on, the play takes on a sense of purpose and Foster finds the strength within the character.
Had we seen this part of Butler sooner, the earlier moments might have had more of a conscience without any loss of humor.
Butler’s take-charge personality is boosted by a visit from a Confederate Major who comes for the slaves. Once Dennis Skiba stops preening and posing to establish an obsequious presence, his confrontation with Butler becomes meaningful, comic and significant.
However, one does wonder if the blindfolded man has to hit the door jamb both coming and going to get a laugh that is rather cheap the first time around. But that’s the tone of White’s direction – the obvious prevails.
Which isn’t to say his choice is entirely wrong. This inconsistent script could be tedious without humor and White and his cast get every bit of laughter in the text. It might also indicate that sometimes a director’s main job is to cover the flaws in a play; which in “Ben Butler” there are many.
“Ben Butler” at Curtain Call Theatre, Latham. Through February 8. For tickets and schedule information call 518-877-7529, curtaincalltheatre.com
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.