Pedantic politics

'Warrior Class' warms but never heats up the stage

Playwright Kenneth Lin focuses his newest work, "Warrior Class," on the smarmy backroom of politics, where deals are made and careers smashed or launched. It's a timely topic, albeit a "given" in this day and age, and TheatreWorks has mounted a handsome production.

The 2012 play purports to expose the extent of such backroom dealings in the context of one young Chinese-American's political ambitions. But, just as with the character's career, there's a fundamental disconnect and the play fails to deliver on its promise.

Charismatic young state assemblyman Julius Weishan Lee (Pun Bandhu), known as the "Republican Obama" to his fans, is being vetted for a potential run for the House, and experienced "consultant" Nathan Berkshire (Robert Sicular) comes on board to vet, coach and advise.

We learn this somewhat obliquely in the first scene, which pairs Berkshire and a woman named Holly Eames (Delia MacDougall). As Berkshire questions Holly about her connection with Julius, we learn how Holly can presumably hurt his career because of what she knows about his past. The scene suggests something wildly inappropriate exists in Julius' history, and ends with a cryptic remark by Berkshire.

In Julius' kitchen in New York, the two men chat endlessly about stuff that sounds vaguely important: Julius' origins, his immigrant parents, how a Chinese-American candidate might need to be even "cleaner" than his opponents, the choice of which committee to serve on to boost his career. But it's all delivered in such a casual way that it's hard to follow: all talk, no action, and all in a conversational monotone. In the last few minutes of the long scene, Berkshire brings up his meeting with Holly, finally connecting a few dots and suggesting a deal for Julius to approve.

The drama unfolds from there by incremental degrees, taking lengthy scenes to deliver relatively small bits of information. Ultimately, there are revelations from all three characters, but they feel anticlimactic after long stretches of inaction, eroding the impact of the overall theme. We all know (don't we?) that every politician must pay to play, and that integrity may be forced to take a back seat to expedience and alliance. We know politicians must be adept at warding off attacks on character and spurious suggestions of misdeeds. If the suggestions prove true, public pillories can undo a great career, or lead constituents to try and defend a candidate in spite of "issues." We can lament this state of affairs, but it's real, and sometimes works for the good when relevant misdeeds are exposed.

Lin's play adds little to the debate about political deal-making or character-bashing and surprisingly next to nothing about the perils of being "ethnic" in American politics. It feels like a one-act drawn out to full length at the cost of action and interest. The more intriguing plot threads -- is Holly unbalanced, or is Julius? potential suicide real or imagined? marital strife and its stresses? -- are never developed. The ending is vague and undramatic; it feels like there's a scene missing.

And why the piano? An homage to Hedda? So many loose ends and, in the long run, inconsequential, a slight blip in the political landscape.

Erik Flatmo's revolving set is quite attractive, but slows the action even further, and forces movement in the kitchen to be quite flat and forward. Lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt adds interesting texture and depth, and Noah Marin's costumes help define characters well. Brendan Aanes' sound design creates a backdrop of political speechifying, but it's just muffled enough that one can't hear if it's the rhetoric of scandal or not.

Director Leslie Martinson has assembled a fine cast, each actor well-suited to the character, but the play's inaction weighs them all down and masks their capabilities. The better scenes occur between Holly and either of the men, where it feels like there is more conflict fueling the tension, but even those are dragged out.

Lin obviously has credible skills in dialogue, and has justifiably grabbed the attention of the theater world. This play, however, feels like it was rushed into production before it had a chance to fully develop, perhaps because of the timely topic.

What: "Warrior Class" by Kenneth Lin, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Through Nov. 3, with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday-Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday.

Cost: Tickets are $23-$73.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.


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