ArtsATL > Theater > Review: The Alliance’s “Warrior Class” opens a sharp eye on the unforgiving world of politics

Review: The Alliance’s “Warrior Class” opens a sharp eye on the unforgiving world of politics

Moses Villarama and Clayton Landey in "Warrior Class." (Photo by Greg Mooney)
Moses Villarama and Clayton Landey in "Warrior Class." (Photo by Greg Mooney)
Moses Villarama, left, and Clayton Landey in “Warrior Class.” (Photo by Greg Mooney)

A house of cards can be built with every card in the deck. But as playwright and writer on the Netflix hit “House of Cards,” Kenneth Lin shows in his new play “Warrior Class” that sometimes a house of cards can be built with just three playing cards.

“House of Cards” and its large chorus of characters, opulent settings, and on-going machinations may have the nation collectively binging on episodes. But “Warrior Class” — on stage at Alliance’s Hertz stage through November 17 — focuses on just three characters on a minimal set for a lightning-quick 75 minutes. Nonetheless, it sweeps us up into its tale of characters caught in the nasty, devastating web of ugly politics.

“Warrior Class” tells the story of Chinese-American Republican politician Julius Weishan Lee (Moses Villarama). Though he’s just at the beginning of his political career, because of his inspiring story and political savvy he’s been identified as the potential next Obama (and for the Republicans, no less).

He’s still just a state representative, but he’s being groomed and prepared for possible national office by party bigwig and rainmaker Nathan Berkshire (Clayton Landey). His past is being vetted and, unfortunately, there’s a little fly in the champagne glass the Republicans are ready to toast to Lee: when he was in college, he engaged in some nearly stalkerish behavior after a difficult break-up withHolly (Carrie Walrond Hood), his girlfriend of two years. She’s not vindictive, but she does want a job for her nebbishy husband, who has been out of work for a year, and she knows that she may hold the ace in this situation.

The brilliant open set design by Mimi Lien, with the audience seated on two sides of the stage, features just a few tables and chairs on two rotating concentric circles in the floor. Sometimes the circles rotate quickly, as in a scene change, but other times they rotate slowly, giving scenes an appropriately queasy disquietude, an unsettled radioactive orbit. It perfectly echoes the shifting, unfixed and often indeterminate power dynamics between the three characters. It also shifts the idea of perspective itself to the fore, appropriately enough for a play about politics.

Julius has a minor fall from grace in the scheme of things today, and his efforts to tailor the past turn his relationship with Nathan inside-out. Biography, emotions and desires only count in terms of how they’ll play out on the playing field of national politics. If it’s helpful; keep it, it stays. If it’s a hindrance, bury it or it buries you. And it is in exactly that political fixer role that Nathan manages to insinuate himself completely into Julius’s future career and choices, and lack thereof.

The plot twists are always presented as choices, free from any obvious tragic character flaws of consequence that we might expect in terms of identifying with a pol. If anything, there is a bit of the rookie meets pool shark feel to the dynamic, and we are not being asked to sympathize. Though “Warrior Class” depicts an engrossing situation, it is 2013 and showing politics as harsh, cynical, unsavory business hardly feels like a revelation. Both politically and theatrically, we’re eager for a new story. For all that, the Alliance has found a fitting cast that brings this play to life.

Projected titles identify the place and setting, and my favorite was one that described the swanky steakhouse in Baltimore — a popular spot for political insiders where the characters often meet for their underhanded wheeling and dealing — as a “nice place for lunch.” By the end of the play, once you know the harsh dog-eat-dog world of these characters, you feel you’d rather gouge out your own eye with a spoon before stepping foot in that place. But other than that, it’s a nice spot for lunch.

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