Theater Review: “Warrior Class” — Political Tragedy or Farce?

Though Kenneth Lin wrote Warrior Class in 2012, it is easy to see its resonances with the 2016 election cycle.

Warrior Class by Kenneth Lin. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Boston, MA. Through November 13.

Jessica Webb and Michael Tow in the Lyric Stage Production of  "Warrior Class." Photo: Mark S. Howard.

Jessica Webb and Michael Tow in the Lyric Stage Production of “Warrior Class.” Photo: Mark S. Howard.

By Ian Thal

In a Baltimore gastropub, where they make their hamburgers by grinding aged steaks on the premises, Holly Lillian Eames, (Jessica Webb) sits down with Nathan Berkshire (Steven Barkhimer). Berkshire is a political operative with connections to the real estate industry. He’s not a party official but a “money guy” who connects candidates with donors. Berkshire’s man of the moment is Julian Weishan Lee (Michael Tow) a New York Assemblyman who is considering a run for Congress.

Lee is a media made man: a video of a speech has gone viral on YouTube and some are calling him a “Republican Obama” – he’s an inspiring speaker with a clean reputation, a regular church goer, a marine veteran who served in the First Gulf War, and he’s Chinese-American. Berkshire is doing opposition research: Lee was also Eames’ college boyfriend and Berkshire wants to make sure that whatever transpired all those years ago with Eames was perfectly normal.

The problem is that things were not normal. When Eames (then Hathaway) had broken up with Lee in their sophomore year, he had reacted poorly – stalking her, not just on campus, but at her parents’ farm, breaking into her room, terrorizing both her and her family, sending her photos with himself and a gun, threatening to commit suicide – before he was approached by marine recruiters.

Post-enlistment, Lee sees himself as having long ago turned his life around. Berkshire seeks to purchase Eames’ silence before she can speaks to either the press  or the Democrats. Lee wants to maintain a clean reputation, not just out of sense of his own personal ethics, but because he is very conscious that he has to be a model Asian-American. Perhaps a white politician could point to all the good he did since leaving college, but he is very aware that a story like this is bound to reflect poorly on Asian-Americans in general. He particularly fears that it would evoke the specter of the 2007 mass shooting Virginia Tech in the minds of some voters.

However much Eames had been traumatized as a college student, however much her career plans have been derailed by the incident, the woman is savvy. The price for her silence: that her husband receive a post in the New York office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s a demand that would require Berkshire to call in a lot of favors, ones that Lee would be obligated to back up. Berkshire convinces Lee that this exercise in hand-washing is the price to become a member of the “warrior class,” and the money guy is soon shuttling from Lee’s Manhattan penthouse back to Baltimore to make a counter offer. (Jenna McFarland Lord’s set design, with but a few shifting panels, transforms quickly between the two locales.)

Though Kenneth Lin wrote Warrior Class in 2012, it is easy to see its resonances with the 2016 election cycle. A connection with Donald Trump’s cro-magnon view and treatment of women is obvious, but Julian Lee is no Trump – he does not take pride in how he stalked Eames, nor does he blame her. When they finally meet face-to-face after twenty-odd years, he is troubled to learn how badly he had terrorized her, and he is horrified that up until this meeting he had never experienced any empathy. It’s hard to imagine a Trump being that self-aware of his failings. And while it might have been possible to imagine an Asian-American Republican Obama in 2012, current trends make such a phenomenon increasingly unlikely across a number of different ethnicities. Of course, it doesn’t help that Trump, over the past year, has spoken suspiciously of “the Chinese” in ways that go beyond Lee and Berkshire’s worst fears.

As for cultural wheeling-and-dealing, the set-up of Warrior Class, in which no one, no matter how idealistic, does not have skeleton in their closet, or price for which they can’t be bought, or some gap between their private and public positions, would seem to be a natural for fans of the American TV version of House of Cards. In fact, the Netflix series has filmed three of Lin’s scripts — he was hired specifically on the strength of this play. The suits know their talent: this writer has an impressive gift for crafting naturalistic dramatic dialogue, conveyed via small talk and asides. Even the most seemingly banal utterances are invested with surprising dramatic weight, nimbly supplying revelations of his characters’ backstories, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. Lin hints at the impending tragedy — but for whom? He keeps enough balls up in the air to keep us guessing.

Director Dawn M. Simmons and her cast do well by Lin’s suspense. Webb’s Holly Eames is not an innocent dragged into a perfidious world, but a smart cookie who has carefully observed from the sidelines over the years. She doesn’t mind being underestimated now that she has something others need. Tow’s Julian Lee is similarly understated; this is a multilayered performance of an idealist, suddenly mindful of his demons, who has to navigate a corrupt political world. Steven Barkhimer plays Berkshire as an unassuming political tactician who avoids the limelight (lighting designer Daniel H. Jentzen keeps the set dimly lit); his operative is obsequious, garrulous, and hard-driving. The ground may shift, but his goals do not.

Still, as entertaining as Warrior Class is, it feels like an audition piece. Lin wrote the script to prove he could make the grade in the lucrative world of high-end television – all that is missing in the script are establishing shots of Manhattan, Baltimore, and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. There’s a lot of justified talk about a Golden Age of television. Sadly, in this scenario the theater has been demoted to the status of Silver or Bronze, mere stepping stones in the increasingly fierce competition to win the Gold.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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