Many politicians try to mythologize their origin stories, glossing over embarrassing early chapters in their lives. Warrior Class, a timely new play by Kenneth Lin running at Off Broadway’s Second Stage Uptown, makes you privy to the hushed, under-the-table dealings necessary to re-closet skeletons and push a promising star out of local politics into national office.
New York assemblyman Julius Lee (Louis Ozawa Changchien), fresh off an attention-arousing speech, has been touted as ”the Republican Obama” by Sean Hannity. A God-fearing ex-Marine, he’s the sort of fresh face the party’s power players will open their wallets for. But as a candidate for the House of Representatives, he comes with big risks — not least of which center on his race. Nathan Berkshire (David Rasche) is a Republican Party ”money guy” tasked with vetting Julius’ background and asking the tough questions, starting with, ”You were born in the United States, right?”
While sniffing out any career-destroying indiscretions, Nathan unearths a problematic episode from Julius’ college years: An ex-girlfriend accused him of stalking. Nathan travels to Baltimore to track down the woman, Holly Eames (Katharine Powell), and to offer her a non-disclosure deal. Holly, now a discontented housewife who once had political ambitions of her own, is well-versed the country’s vicious bipartisan climate. Julius’ opponent will use her accusations to draw comparisons to Virginia Tech or ”that Chinese guy shooting hunters in the forest.” She decides to play hardball, threatening to nip Julius’ blossoming career at the bud.
Lin’s taut, provocative play thrives on its characters’ ambivalence; it avoids being reductive while examining ”lowest common denominator thinking” inherent in today’s politics, especially where race is involved. With a spare set that doubles as Manhattan and Baltimore, the show relies on performances and dialogue — both are bracing and real. Changchien gives texture to the camera-ready baby-kisser Julius, whose desperation to escape his past breaks through his studied white-bread demeanor. As Holly, Powell convincingly walks the fine line between unrelenting opportunism and completely justified righteousness — she’s a tense bundle of yoga muscles and bulging clavicles. Rasche, as the play’s most interesting character, frighteningly snaps from grizzled and avuncular to red-faced and ruthless. At my performance, Rasche stumbled over his lines so often it almost seemed intentional. It worked, though — he came across as a past-his-prime kingmaker whose boozy mind can no longer keep up with the fast game he’s talking.
At its most jargon-y, Lin’s dialogue evokes the most infuriating aspects of an Aaron Sorkin drama, but this thoroughly enjoyable play packs a neat, 90-minute punch that’s well suited to an election year. B+
(Tickets: 2st.com or 212-246-4422)