BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
A compact, tautly-written drama set at the conclusion of the Civil War, "The Whipping Man" studies two recently-freed slaves and their former master, all of them Jews, dealing with new realities.
Newcomer playwright Matthew Lopez takes an original idea and develops it boldly in an old-school style sure to please viewers who enjoy a good story vigorously played out.
Originally presented by New Jersey's Luna Stage in 2006, "The Whipping Man" has since appeared at several regional theaters but only now arrives in New York, where Manhattan Theatre Club's enjoyable Off Broadway production opened on Tuesday.
Spanning a few rainy days in mid-April 1865, Lopez's scenario reminds us that some slaves were raised in the faith of their owners. That's the case for middle-aged Simon (Andre Braugher) and the younger John (Andre Holland), household servants for a wealthy Jewish family in Richmond.
Thunder crashes as youngish Confederate soldier Caleb (Jay Wilkison) staggers back from the just-ended war to find his family home wrecked. His relations fled elsewhere, the only people left are raffish John and faithful Simon, who sees Caleb's festering leg wound and declares that amputation is necessary.
As he recovers a day later, Caleb slowly comprehends that his lifelong relationship with these newly-freed men has changed significantly. "It will not be like before," says Simon. Realizing that Passover has begun, the men prepare for a potluck Seder that marks their own delivery from captivity. "Why is this year different from all other years?" slyly notes John.
The drama's second act sees the Seder celebrated while Simon and John mourn the death of "Father Abraham" Lincoln and hopefully map out their new futures. Past deeds, present crisis and a revelation of terrible betrayal by Caleb's family — among numerous surprises — combine to end the story bitterly.
Absorbing socio-historical detail and lurid moments of drama are neatly mixed by Lopez, whose potent brew of realism is expertly stirred by director Doug Hughes. Designer John Lee Beatty's set for the ruined mansion is strangely beautiful, especially when hauntingly lit in blue shadows by Ben Stanton.
The dialogue sounds a mite contemporary, but Lopez writes it vividly and certainly knows how to pack plenty of storyline into two swift hours. Top-notch acting drives the drama, which is anchored by an exceptionally fine performance by Braugher, whose rich voice lends extra resonance to that Passover dinner.
"The Whipping Man" continues through March 27 at New York City Center Stage 1, 131 W. 55th St., New York. Call (212) 581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org.