By Anita Felicelli
Why See "Warrior Class"?Uploaded: Oct 10, 2013
TheaterWorks opened its season with "Warrior Class," a riveting play by Kenneth Lin. In the play, Julius Lee (played by Pun Bandhu) is a Chinese-American junior assemblyman in New York whose past comes back to bite him. While a sophomore in college, Julius had been in love with a fellow student and when the relationship went sour, stalked her and threatened to kill himself.
Of course, as the play points out, none of us (over the age of 30 anyway) are who we were in college. Holly Eames (Delia MacDougall), the former girlfriend, emerges from the woodwork, demanding a HUD job for her adulterous husband in order to keep quiet about what Julius did. One of Nathan's supporters, a political operator named Nathan Berkshire (Robert Sicular), engages in hardball negotiations with her.
All three actors give excellent performances, but Robert Sicular is a standout. While watching him turn from benevolent man's man into shrewd and loathsome warrior, I was reminded very strongly of a number of politicians I met early in my legal career, the good old boys whose cynicism and battle smarts are simultaneously awe-inspiring and disturbing. It speaks to the strength of Lin's research (and ability to transform that research into believable, three-dimension characters) that he perfectly captures the cadences and rhythms of how politicians and party operators speak.
Plus politics seems especially relevant right now. If, like me, you've been pissed off about the government shutdown, this play will remind you of the corruption behind so many of our politicians, while simultaneously offering an engrossing escape. The play touches on "otherness" in the context of American politics, the nature of morality, what it takes to become a career politician, and the ugly game that politics has become, in which every misstep must be covered, often by another misstep.
Although absorbing and filled with political machinations, "Warrior Class" never strains credibility. Earlier this year, Kenneth Lin joined Netflix's television show "House of Cards" as a staff writer and if "Warrior Class" is any indication, "House of Cards" could be improved by the addition. Don't get me wrong. As a junkie for political shows, I enjoyed the first six or seven episodes of "House of Cards," but at some point it became too sensationalistic and its anti-hero became too unhinged and I lost interest. "Warrior Class" is remarkably grounded, focusing on realistic human emotion, drives and corruption, rather than relying on a wacky plot to keep the audience's interest.
Occasionally, the clarity of the dialogue bereft of the digressions that make both real life and stories more interesting give the play a simple feel. Don't we already know that politics is dirty? But for the most part, the story isn't one we see very often in either the movies or television, the story of a minority politician who feels additional pressure to be squeaky clean and whose face renders him particularly susceptible to the pressure the party puts on him. Julius deals with these issues as "the Republican Obama" in a political context, but the issues he faces as an Asian-American today are ones that have been deftly explored in other contexts as well for example, in writer Wesley Yang's excellent n+1 essay, The Face of Seung-Hui Cho (available as a Kindle single). And each of the three characters is complex and convincing. You'll feel like you've seen these people in real life, perhaps gone to dinner with them or wrangled with them at a business meeting.
"Warrior Class" has two basic sets. One is the interior of a Baltimore steakhouse with multiple pictures and a railroad sign, just the kind of place you'd expect a political operator to invite someone for lunch. The other is Julius Lee's New York kitchen, complete with a piano and a popcorn maker put to good (and ominous) use. The attention to detail in both set pieces is remarkable. The sound, too, is just right for the story reminiscent of the opening credits of Homeland.
"Warrior Class" runs about 1 hour and 40 minutes with a fifteen-minute intermission. It plays now through November 9. While the tickets aren't cheap, it's a stellar night of theater.