As a political drama, Warrior Class seems both timely and not so timely. It's about a guy running for Congress -- or rather being vetted for a potential run for the House of Representatives -- and certainly Congress is much on everyone's minds at the moment. But at this point the idea of someone wanting to go to Washington to get stuff done rather than to keep anything from ever getting done seems quaint, like a relic from a bygone era.
That's not to say that Warrior Class isn't cynical about the political process. Kenneth Lin's play, which premiered at New York's Second Stage Theatre last year and now plays the Peninsula courtesy of TheatreWorks, is very much about how politics are more concerned with who owes a favor to whom than about beliefs, platforms or matters of principle. Indeed, nothing close to a position on any issue is actually discussed.
A newly minted New York State Assemblyman is contemplating a run for Congress. Hailed as "the Republican Obama," Julius Weishan Lee is a Chinese-American Gulf War veteran, devout Christian and charismatic young up-and-comer. But the GOP powers-that-be have to make very, very sure that he doesn't have any skeletons in his closet before they can get behind him. As Julius says, "You don't get to look like me and have any trouble in the past." Unfortunately his past isn't quite as squeaky clean as he'd like to think. When put on the spot by Julius' handler, his college girlfriend isn't willing to say that everything was hunky-dory back then because she remembers the candidate as a pretty scary guy. So now the question becomes, is she going to be a problem, and what do they have to do to make sure she isn't?
Delia MacDougall and Robert Sicular in Warrior Class; photo: Tracy Martin.
TheatreWorks' California premiere of the play is elegantly staged by Associate Artistic Director Leslie Martinson. Robert Sicular is terrific as Nathan Berkshire, Julius' political fixer. He's warm and outgoing, turning on the charm in a way that comes off as empathetic and genuine, but there's always that undercurrent of calculation that tells you he's willing to play good cop and bad cop at the same time if he has to. Delia MacDougall exudes anxious discomfort exquisitely as Julius' ex-girlfriend Holly Eames, her pauses and noncommittal answers speaking volumes. Pun Bandhu has an easygoing charisma as Julius, but there's something dark and unpredictable there too -- in his temper, in his resentment. It's fascinating when we finally get to see him and Holly in the same room, because there's a palpable tension between the comfortable familiarity of their shared history and the extremely uncomfortable lack of trust between them now. Complicating matters is that they all have other problems, very troubling family problems -- even Nathan, who seems to live for Beltway intrigue, has someone back home he's worried about.
Erik Flatmo's set is cleverly versatile, switching from the artfully cluttered decor of Nathan's favorite steakhouse to Julius' tidy and spacious kitchen. Ominous suspense music plays between scenes in Brendan Aanes' sound design, laced with barely comprehensible sound bites of speeches from President Obama and (as far as I could tell) Senator McCain.
Pun Bandhu and Robert Sicular in Warrior Class; photo: Mark Kitaoka.
Although the basic setup is intriguing, and director Martinson keeps the tension sharp, ultimately the drama doesn't amount to much, and the play just seems to peter out at the end. All the stuff around Holly, the leverage she seems to have and the effect this long-ago relationship had on her is gripping, but the play loses steam in the other scenes of strategizing and negotiations with Julius and Nathan. And the problem really does seem to be the material and not the performances. The nuts-and-bolts talk between Nathan and Julius about what committee he should serve on gets tiresome pretty quickly, though it does have some plot relevance later. A bigger problem is the aforementioned one, that politics as an old boys' network where who's beholden to whom determines what gets done feels like a relatively benign West Wing brand of political intrigue. The real-life politics in Washington are so much more dramatic and shocking than anything this little drama could possibly imagine.
Warrior Class runs through November 3, 2013 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and information, visit theatreworks.org.