First Nighter: Richard Strand's Funny "Butler," Norman Shabel's Taut "A Class Act"

If someone had told me one of my favorite plays of the almost one-quarter-completed 2016-17 theater season would be a raucous comedy placed in the early days of The Civil War, I'd have had a good laugh. Nevertheless, here it is, sent from its New Jersey Repertory Company premiere to 59E59 Theatres. It's Richard Strand's Butler, and I'm having many genuine laughs--with it, not at it.

Strand, new to me but apparently writing plays for some time, couldn't be more welcome with his tale of what happens in the early days of the war when runaway slave Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams) arrives at Virginia's Fort Monroe to make demands of Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler (Ames Adamson), a lawyer newly assigned as the fort's commanding officer.

Butler has only just dressed down Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling) for repeating "demand"--a word he loathes and has ordered not be spoken with his earshot--when he invites Mallory into his well-appointed office (Jessica L. Parks designed it) after the word "request" has been substituted for "demand."

The ensuing conversation has its ups and downs (mostly downs) with Mallory frequently overstepping his bounds. The volatile Butler allows the liberty for the anything-but-liberated Mallory because despite everything indicated to the contrary, he's beginning to like the man.

In a following scene, Butler even offers Mallory, who's in the company of two other (unseen) slaves, a chance to escape north. The major general has predicated his decision on Mallory's exposing the latticework of scars on his back, all of them administered by his owner, also surnamed Mallory, to whom the fugitive slave must legally be returned.

Mallory refuses to accept the offer, however, and does so in the educated language he's exhibited ever since his now cocky, now deferential entrance. He begs Butler not to have him and his fellow slaves returned.

Every time Butler and Mallory clash, often with Lieutenant Kelly joining in or admonished by Butler not to, they're both at odds with each other and rib-ticklingly funny about it. Mallory repeatedly says he's a hated man by everyone who knows him. Butler is ready to join that club--so is Kelly--and through Butler's two acts their exchanges are a hoot.

In the second act, artillery expert Major Cary (David Sitler), the Confederate officer dispatched to retrieve Malory (and two friends) is ushered in to make his legal demands of Butler. His having to be admonished for that employment of "demands" is only the first of the circles Butler dances around him. To bamboozle Major Cary, the major general neatly works some legal tricks and more laughs ensue. He also elicits better tidings for quick-tongued Mallory.

Joseph Discher directed Adamson, Sterling, Williams and Sitler, and they respond with agile, amusing portrayals. They help light up (Jill Nagle is the lighting designer, Patricia E. Doherty the costume designer) a play that more than resonates with 2016, this benighted year when disturbing racist attitudes seem particularly persistent. Kudos to playwright Strand for a comedy that also slyly impresses as a timely drama.

With A Class Act, Norman Shabel has written a nail-biting play about corruption gnawing away throughout a class action suit against a major chemical company. (The company is fictional--not Merck, which is mentioned a few times). Shabel's scorcher, at New World Stages, progresses invitingly but not without borrowing critical plot turns from The Best Man, Mad Men and even Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

The boardroom thriller--you could call it a law procedural--follows lawyers on both sides of a suit in which the plaintiffs are past, present and perhaps future victims of carcinogens that the stock-plummeting General Chemical Corporation knew to be polluting waters in communities where company factories are located.

The small Alessi & Warsaw firm--Phil Alessi (Stephen Bradbury) and Frank Warsaw (Matthew DeCapua)--is representing the plaintiffs with another lawyer, Ben Donaldson (Lou Liberatore). These Davids facing law-firm Goliaths are in poised to demand a whopping settlement. They possess a General Chemical in-house study confirming the contaminated waste.

Lawyers for the defendants include the very moral Ignatio Perez (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte), John Dubliner (Nick Plakias), Edward Duchamp (David Marantz) and Dorothy Pilsner (Jenny Strassburg). Dorothy is the reason why the plaintiff's lawyers want to settle. They've watched her work her feminine wiles on susceptible judges and don't want to take a chance on her in court.

Since we're living at a time when there is assumed to be no clear-cut good and evil--no black-and-white but only 50 shades of dark grey (okay, Ignatio is a much lighter shade of grey)--A Class Act is another instance of a play in which the suspense isn't based on how good eventually triumphs over evil. It's about which determinedly pragmatic side will prevail in the heated who's-zoomin'-who competition.

Most of the scenes in the intermissionless 90-minute script take place in conference rooms where the two sides confront each other with big, bad wolf smiles while plotting destructive tactics. A few alternating scenes feature Dorothy meeting surreptitiously with Ben or Frank to present them with damning information on their private lives. The General Chemical schemers think these revelations will disarm the opponents.

Whether or not the blackmail info succeeds whenever Dorothy lets her hair down and exposes her cleavage will not be disclosed here for fear of spoiling the Class Act fun and games. All the same, it can be divulged that expected results don't materialize.

Playwright Shabel is obviously upset about large corporation disregard when truth threatens to affect revenues, and director Christopher Scott and the cast maximize his anger. The bad will shot by all members of the combatting teams across Josh Iacovelli's economical set (mostly a conference table, ergonomic chairs and black curtains) is palpable.

Which suits come out on top? The answer won't be supplied here, but a clue will be: We live in a time when clear resolutions are hard to come by. Find out for yourself if this is one of those rare occurrences.

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