What’s this — a new play with an actual brain in its head? How positively retro of Second Stage, which bagged this endangered specimen for the second slot in its summer Uptown Festival, a developmental program now in its 10th year. In its sober treatment of the calculated corruption of a principled young Asian-American Assemblyman (described as “a Republican Barack Obama”) being groomed for a run at the Senate, Kenneth Lin’s “Warrior Class” is not only smart, it’s also politically potent material for an election year.
Tech values are pretty snazzy for a workshop production mounted on a slim budget. Japhy Weideman’s low-keyed lighting design casts nice shadows on the shady political deals that are struck in this play, while Andromache Chalfant’s handsome wood-paneled set functions on the mysterious principles of a big Chinese box.
Hidden nooks and crannies behind the wall panels swing open on the kitchen of the tasteful suburban home where New York state Assemblyman Julius Weishan Lee, played by Louis Ozawa Changchien (“Predators”), is in consultation with veteran political handler Nathan Berkshire, played by David Rasche. This professional fixer is trying to convince the high-minded junior politico to abandon his do-good/feel-good crusades and get behind the big-ticket projects of the corrupt power elite. Julius is ambitious enough not to rule it out, but he’s Mr. Clean and as such, needs a bit of persuasion.
The peek-a-boo set also transforms itself into various eating establishments in Baltimore where Nathan holds discreet meetings with Julius’ college sweetheart. Holly Eames (Katharine Powell) may look like a harmless house mouse, but this woman has been nursing a grievance against Julius that could ruin his promising career if he doesn’t find a way to make peace with her — or if Nathan doesn’t find a way to buy her off.
Holly not only accuses Julius of aggressively stalking her after she broke off their unhealthy relationship, she also holds him responsible for the crippling nervous breakdown that forced her to drop out of school and ended her own brilliant career. The details she supplies make the substance of her accusations sound entirely plausible. And guess what? She’s got the threatening letters and compromising photos to prove it.
This is hot material, but to his credit, Lin doesn’t cheapen it by playing for melodrama. Instead, he elevates one man’s political dilemma into a probing morality play that raises all kinds of ethical questions. Is everything really fair in love and war and politics? Are crimes and misdemeanors ever admissable in the cause of a greater good? Can people really change over time? Can they ever be forgiven for their past sins? And who pays for these sins, anyway?
The characters don’t debate these issues, which is always certain death in a political drama. They grapple with them in a personal way, something that’s only possible because Lin has drawn these complicated people with both brains and psychological depth.
Unfortunately, helmer Evan Cabnet’s casting choices aren’t all up to their characters. Julius’ moral conflict is far more gripping on the page than it is in Changchien’s stiff perf, which shows none of the political acumen and personal charisma that has the Republican party machine revving its engines. Nor does Powell convey the emotional turmoil behind the painful choice Holly must make between her career and her marriage.
Only Rasche, a veteran thesp who can convey the state of a character’s soul by the way he wears his tie or takes a phone call, captures the many sides of Nathan’s persona. The foxy political animal, the devious party fixer, the brilliant analyst and ruthless manipulator of human behavior are all on full view, but so, too, are subtle glimpses of the private person he keeps to himself — the person who carries this play on his back.