In Warrior Class, a Republican assemblyman from New York, 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 dialogue by the award-winning playwright Kenneth Lin is subtle, accessible and compelling. And 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 see simultaneously the workings of the brain, searching for a politically-damaging flaw, alert to a misspoken word - "back to China" instead of "to China" sounds his inner alarm.
This is a bravura performance, all the more interesting as it is played low key, conversationally, with no break-out moments to demand attention. We are fascinated because we see the remarkable skill of Nathan, as he segues from idle chatter to begin a 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; a unflagging worker in the vineyards of politics, and he does know where the bodies are buried.
Nathan has discovered an event in the past of the potential candidate, Julius Weishan Lee, played by Nick Maccarone, that might be damaging. When in college, Julius had a relationship for more than a year with Holly Hathaway, and Julius stalked her when she broke off the relationship. Fifteen years have passed and Holly is now Mrs. Eames, married with two children. Nathan asks her to sign a certification that she and Julius had a typical romantic relationship, and Holly refuses - unless they find a job for her husband, 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 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.
Nick Maccarone plays Julius and provides the cautious ambiguity the playwright intends. As an assemblyman, he would prefer committees helping the under-represented - 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 he has that speech that went viral, causing Sean Hannity to label him "the Republican Obama." - no wonder the pols are interested.
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, are 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 presidential races, and playwright Lin's insights are sharp and incisive.
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The main setting is a private room in an upscale steak house, where the opening scene and many other scenes 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.
A 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.
Warrior Class continues through June 2 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. For information or ticketing, call 713-220-5700 or contact www.alleytheatre.org.