Warrior Class: Hitting the Stage

Nathan Berkshire (Vito D'Ambrosio) presents dreams and possibilities to Julius Weishan Lee (Nick Maccarone) in the Alley Theatre's production of Warrior Class.
Jann Whaley

A Republican assemblyman from New York, Julius Weishan Lee, Chinese-American, has given an inspirational talk that has gone viral and brought him to the attention of some political kingmakers. He is ­being vetted for the nomination for a Con­gres­sional seat by a veteran political practitioner, who works behind the scenes to bring together donors with money and candidates with promise. The appeal of Julius is that his fresh face, ethnicity and a distinguished war record may give the Republicans a shot at a solidly Democratic Congressional seat.

The Alley's Neuhaus Stage works beautifully for Warrior Class, almost as though we were watching combat in a courtroom, since one of the play's themes is stalking and what it does to victim and predator, which is very much in the headlines.

The dialogue by award-winning playwright Kenneth Lin is subtle, accessible and compelling. Vito D'Ambrosio as political matchmaker Nathan Berkshire finds the nuances Lin has provided, playing them like a musical scale so that while smooth words of encouragement cascade from his mouth, we simultaneously see the workings of his brain, searching for a politically damaging flaw, alert to a misspoken word — "back to China" instead of "to China" sounds his inner alarm.


Warrior Class

Through June 2 at Alley Theatre. 615 Texas, 713-220-5700.

This is a bravura performance, all the more interesting as it's played low-key, conversationally, with no breakout moments to demand attention. We are fascinated because we see the remarkable skill of Nathan as he segues from idle chatter to conversation, then to intense interrogation, then promises of financial benefits, then veiled threats and even overt ones — but all delivered with the friendly "I am on your side" persona that has stood him so well over the years. He is a seasoned veteran, an unflagging worker in the vineyards of politics, and he does know where the bodies are buried.

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Nathan has discovered an event in the past of the potential candidate, played by Nick Maccarone, that might be damaging. While in college, Julius had a relationship for more than a year with Holly Hathaway and stalked her when she broke off the affair. Fifteen years have passed and Holly is now Mrs. Eames, married with two children. Nathan asks her to sign a document certifying that she and Julius had a typical romantic relationship, and Holly refuses — unless they find a job for her husband, who's been unemployed for over a year. But Julius won't go along with this, and the Machiavellian negotiations ­begin in earnest.

Holly is portrayed by Caroline Hewitt, and she is excellent, holding her own against the very persuasive Nathan and conveying by body language even more than by words that the stalking had seriously wounded her — she had a nervous breakdown in college, and her own life has not been what she dreamed it might be. Nick Maccarone plays Julius and provides the cautious ambiguity the playwright intends. As an assemblyman, he would prefer committees helping the underrepresented — is this a sign that he has matured and changed? Or is his still violent temper the better indicator that leopards don't change their spots? He left college to join the Marines and became a decorated war hero, and his speech went viral, causing Sean Hannity to label him "The Republican Obama." No wonder the pols are interested.

The script is laced with humor despite the gravity of the situation. My favorite moments are when Nathan is in full manipulative mode, pulling Julius's strings, pushing the buttons he has installed in him, while saying with apparent sincerity:" It's up to you entirely. It's your decision." Nathan works 16-hour days, and he comments; "It doesn't seem like work to me." And I believed it.

There are parenthetical side stories, some adroitly handled, others shoehorned in, and while adding little, they don't detract from the very thick tension. The script rips the curtain off the political compromises, payoffs and deals made in private, which become so damaging when exposed. The intricate network of alliances, of constantly shifting political power, is tangential to the central plot but so well referenced that they become intriguing in themselves — where a meeting is held is crucial. While the stakes — a congressional seat — may seem small to some, the patterns of behavior echo those in presidential races, and Lin's insights are sharp and incisive.

There are some surprises in the drama, most of them flowing organically from the developing situation. I would have liked to know more about the speech that went viral; including a segment of it might have tilted the drama a bit less against Julius. The plot resolutions ring true and resonate powerfully in this detailed and tawdry description of the seamy side of politics. Nathan says, with a shrug: "That's how the game is played."

The main setting is a private room in an upscale steakhouse, where the opening scene and many others take place, and it is handsome indeed thanks to designer Eugene Lee. The direction is by Wilson Milam, who has understood the brilliance and subtlety of the script and delivered its authenticity. I suspect this is the kind of play that will rise or fall on the actors, and this cast elevates it to success.

This subtle duel of wits between three strong personalities creates gripping tension, and three skilled actors engage fully with a remarkable script to create theatrical power, with Vito D'Ambrosio delivering a performance memorable for its variety and intelligence. This is a must-see event.

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Alley Theatre

615 Texas Ave.
Houston, TX 77002



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