Saturday, 26 October 2013

WARRIOR CLASS by Kenneth Lin at the Alliance Theatre

     This thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking play falls into the category of what I call "con plays." David Mamet's plays tend to fall into this category as do those of Neil LaBute and a number of younger playwrights. The action of the play is built on one character scheming to outwit and foil another. Often the audience does not know until the end of the play who has been controlling the action. Unfortunately the lesser examples of this category seem mechanical because there is little more to them than the machinery.  The characters have little substance -- they are just pawns in the game. Ethan Coen's recent WOMEN OR NOTHING is an example of the pitfalls of this sort of play. The beauty of Kenneth Lin's WARRIOR CLASS is that action always seems to stem from character, yet the characters are too complex to be fully explained. We are left at the end with a number of questions.
     Julius Washington Lee is a thirty-nine year old aspiring New York politician on the way up. He's a military hero, selfless community leader, brilliant orator. He is now a state assemblyman with ambitions to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. He's also a first generation Chinese-American. There are very few Chinese-American politicians who have made it very far up the political ladder. This somewhat Faustian character has his own Mephistopheles, a political fixer, Nathan Berkshire, who lives to combine ambitious politicians with the big money necessary to run campaigns. The big money people, of course, have their own agenda. Lee really seems to be an ideal politician, eager to get ahead but also insistent on staying clean, of rising above the dirty aspects of politics. Is that possible, particularly when one puts oneself in the hands of a Nathan Berkshire (a made-up name if there ever was one, a WASP name for a Jewish political fixer).
     Being a clean politician means having a squeaky clean past, particularly in the age of the Wieners and Spitzers. Unfortunately, in doing due diligence on Lee, Berkshire has discovered an ex-college girlfriend, Holly Eames. When Julius and Holly broke up, Julius started stalking her, which frightened Holly so much that she had a nervous breakdown. Like Dennis in Michael Pearlman's fine FROM WHITE PLAINS, Holly has never been able to get over her twenty-year-old trauma. Now she can get even. The price of her silence will be a juicy government job for her unemployed, unfaithful husband who's also involved in a bank scandal. Holly is sure Julius has not changed, that he can't possibly be fit for public office.
     Our sympathies throughout this eighty minute play are with Julius, but there are gnawing questions. What's going on with his marriage? Has he really changed or is the scary kid still in there somewhere? If he really wants to be squeaky clean, why is he consorting with Nathan Berkshire?
     Everybody's home life seems to be a mess in WARRIOR CLASS. Holly's marriage is in trouble. Julius's seems to be breaking apart. Nathan's child is an addict. If people can't control their own lives, how can they govern?
     I won't give away the "surprise" ending of WARRIOR CLASS. Actually there are clear signposts along the way of what is really transpiring. The play is too rich to be totally wrapped up by its conclusion.
     I saw the first preview, so the rhythm isn't quite there yet, but the acting is excellent all around. Carrie Walrond Hood has a slightly irritating high-pitched voice, but she captures Holly's desperation. Moses Villarama looks and acts like the ideal politician who seems almost too controlled. Clayton Landey captures Nathan's bonhomie and his desperate need to control the action. Director Eric Ting has set up the black box Hertz Stage so that the audience sits on two sides of the stage. The action is played on a slow moving turntable (like those rooftop bars in old Holiday Inns) so that the audience can see all sides of the actors who are often sitting at tables. Unfortunately this mechanical movement is also distracting and robs the play of some of its intensity.
     Some readers were furious with me when I observed in my review of HARMONY that everything in Atlanta gets a standing ovation, which renders standing ovations meaningless. Oddly, last night's performance of WARIOR CLASS did not get a standing ovation. This may mean that the play left the audience cold. It also may mean that the play left the viewers with a lot to think about. If the rhythm picks up, which I'm sure it will, this will be a top-notch production of an absorbing play.
WARRIOR CLASS by Kenneth Lin. Alliance Theatre Hertz Stage, Atlanta, October 25, 2013.

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