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Warrior Class

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Louis Ozawa Changchien and David Rasche
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Any American who pays attention to the machinations of the government, whether at the local, state, or Federal level, knows that politics is, at its best, a blood sport. The answers to questions of who's sleeping with whom, who's backstabbing whom, who's buying which votes always seem less important than the mere facts of the matters' existence. It's almost as though the twisted situations and unsavory personalities nudging them along care more about keeping the game interesting and the right folks in charge than they do accomplishing anything of substantial note. And it's this world that playwright Kenneth Lin so adroitly captures in his new play Warrior Class, which just opened at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series.

What Lin demonstrates, with tremendous color if not always with ease, is that the cancer of self-importance that identifies political animals doesn't stop metastasizing within their own little cluster of cells. When something's a problem for them it becomes a problem for the rest of us—whether it should be or not. And Lin and his director Evan Cabnet play that up beautifully throughout much of this 90-minute deconstruction of two men on opposite sides the influence equation: the peddler of make-or-break backroom deals who sets the terms and ensures they're carried out, and the public face who is never actually as in control as he appears to be.

The former is Nathan Berkshire (David Rasche), a problem solver with several decades of experience who's being challenged by his newest client (or, rather, his newest clients' client). That would be the latter, Julius Weishan Lee (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a former marine being described as the "Republican Obama" who's now in the New York State Assembly and is being fast tracked to the House of Representatives. That Julius presents Nathan with a challenge is something of a shock: He's young, good looking, and has an uplifting background and a budding family. But when he was in college, Julius was accused of stalking and terrifying his ex-girlfriend—a situation that, apparently, was never fully resolved.

Katharine Powell and Louis Ozawa Changchien
Photo by Carol Rosegg

So when we first meet Nathan, he's at a retro-stylish New York steakhouse (designed, with stark but kitschy appeal, by Andromache Chalfant) with the now-grown woman (named Holly and played by Katharine Powell) trying to suss out the truth where he can and, well, create it where he can't. The only problem: Although Holly is willing to be honest with Nathan, she's reluctant to go officially on the record about it. Before long, we learn the source of her hesitation: a desire to get a high-up HUD job for her philandering husband. If Nathan can come through with that, Holly will find some way to manage to be quiet; otherwise, hers is a story she's confident needs to be told.

Lin doesn't break a lot of new ground here; he mostly concerns himself with the traditional moral of power corrupting and political power corrupting absolutely, which is reflected in the constantly reconfiguring ways each member of the trio reacts to the forces that are always operating in the shadows. He also has some trouble revving up his tale, clogging his two opening scenes with exposition that too often gets in the way of the juicy interactions and deceits that define how these people live their lives. But once Lin has laid his framework, Cabnet seizes on it to transform Warrior Class into exactly the whiplash-inducing nail-biter it should be, scoring especially in the two final scenes, in which Julius and Holly finally reunite and Nathan makes known the extent of his loyalties (or lack thereof).

Those scenes are also when Rasche comes into his own. Despite being the evening's ostensible central figure, for much of the evening he has trouble balancing Nathan's earnestness and devious nature; Rasche plays him as inscrutable, but in the wrong way—not that you don't know what he thinks, but that you don't know that he thinks. You sense his Nathan is something of a programmable paper pusher and not a mover and shaker in his own right, which gives up the game too early. If you don't believe all three are broken and working to stage a comeback, it's tough to accept the choices they make as the only ones they can make. But once Rasche drops the fa├žade and lets Nathan show who and why he is, you finally feel the heat you've been missing.

There's no lack of it, however, in Changchien's and Powell's performances. Both actors smartly convey their characters' ravenous hunger, while never losing sight of how they're both different kinds of victims as well. Changchien's self-effacing stoicism is slightly more compelling than Powell's more brashly pointed approach, but each presents a different, yet equally chilling, perspective on the dangers of buying into the propaganda that surrounds you.

That's the ultimate lesson of Warrior Class: that no one is as great as he thinks he is, no matter what everyone else might declare. Anyone can and will be brought down upon stepping out of line, and we're all pawns to some sort of special interest, whether external or internal. Whether anyone can effect lasting change in that kind of environment is the major question left open, and the answer Lin suggests is not always an encouraging one. Still, the playwright asks it clearly and cleverly, and with sufficient verve to remind you not just of what's at stake throughout his play, but also in the many years ahead for the country in which there's increasingly no other way to operate.

Warrior Class
Through August 11
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
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