Comedy depends on the element of surprise. And the most surprising thing about Ben Butler, Richard Strand’s Civil War tug-of-war over a runaway slave who seeks asylum at a Union army post, is that the dire situation is played for laughs.
The play is full of verbal wit, delivered with verve by a capable four-member cast at Boca Stage, under the crafty direction of the company’s resident director, Genie Croft. Based on real-life individuals and a historically accurate incident, the play veers off into fiction, while making serious points about race and the law with puckish humor.
The year is 1861 and war is raging offstage, while Strand’s narrative is set entirely in the Union-occupied Fort Monroe, Va., office of its commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler (Troy J. Stanley). As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, his by-the-books West Point graduate aide, Lieutenant Kelly (Jordan Armstrong), enters with the bad news that three runaway slaves have arrived at the fort seeking asylum. Worse yet, one of the slaves, Shepard Mallory (Denzel McCausland), demands to be seen by Butler, an uppity order that sets the major general’s teeth on edge.
When he reluctantly agrees to see the runaway slave, Butler soon understands that Mallory is far more than he bargained for — not that he had ever previously spent any time talking to a black man. Unexpectedly savvy and articulate, Mallory is every bit a match for Butler, who was previously a lawyer before joining the Union army. Butler finds himself sympathizing with the slave, yet when he offers to let him escape to freedom, Mallory refuses, preferring the relative safety of sanctuary inside the fort.
In the second act — again adhering to actual events — a Confederate Maj. Cary (Jim Gibbons) arrives to retrieve Mallory and transport him back to his owner. Effete and wily, Cary is blindsided by Butler’s facility with the law and his “contraband” argument. The interplay between the two officers on opposite sides of the war makes for a cleverly written and performed skirmish, though it goes on a tad too long.
The problem is it keeps Mallory cooling his heels out of sight, and in a capable ensemble, McCausland is the best actor in the bunch. True, Mallory is the play’s most compelling character, but McCausland breathes charismatic life into him, bristling with an intelligence that can counter his captor’s assumed superiority. Little is recorded of what was actually said between the two men, which gives playwright Strand the latitude to invent their verbal dual, which he does from a distinctly anachronistic 21st-century perspective.
Although a fixture of South Florida theater, Stanley gets a rare leading role in what is his Boca Stage debut. As Ben Butler, he proves to be a master of the slow burn, exasperated by the thorny political predicament he finds himself in. Armstrong is a droll, deadpan foil to his superior officer, sort of a Civil War Radar O’Reilly. And in his single scene, Gibbons makes a positive impression as the pompous and easily flustered Major Cary.
Dustin Hamilton’s office set makes a serviceable playing space and Alberto Arroyo’s costumes are attractive, particularly Mallory’s artfully tattered duds.
Ben Butler dramatizes an irony-filled page from history, that director Croft brings to life with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek.
BEN BUTLER. Boca Stage at Sol Theatre, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, Through Sunday, April 10. $45-$50. Call 561-447-8829 or visit primalforces.com.