BWW Reviews: The Alley Theatre's WARRIOR CLASS is Edgy, Poignant, and Thrilling
As part of the Alley Theatre's New Play Initiative, where the Alley facilitates a creative collaboration between playwrights, directors, actors, and designers, the organization is producing Kenneth Lin's edgy and fresh drama WARRIOR CLASS. Kenneth Lin's INTELLIGENCE-SLAVE was previously produced in 2010 as part of this program as well. Kenneth Lin is also a staff writer for Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS and the creator of USA Networks new limited series AMERICAN WAY.
The intriguingly tense yet comical WARRIOR CLASS is a political drama that centers on Julius Weishan Lee, a New York assemblyman who's being called "The Republican Obama." Julius, the child of Chinese immigrants and a veteran of the current war in Iraq, is hoping to get the opportunity to run for a Congressional seat. Unfortunately, a series of bad choices he made as a sophomore in college are coming back to haunt him. As he faces the allegations of his aggressions becoming public knowledge, Julius has to figure out how much he is willing to sacrifice to ensure that his dreams of political stardom can be achieved.
Direction by Wilson Milam is superbly enthralling. He coaches his cast to deliver the clever and witty dialogue in such a believable and realistic way that it really feels as if Kenneth Lin simply wrote a transcript of a series of real recorded conversations. Wilson Milam also keeps the action realistic. Every emotional outburst and each demand seems practical and reasonable for the characters and the situations. Moreover, the plot moves at a fascinating pace, never allowing the back and forth of this turbid and convoluted mental chess game to reach a stalemate. Instead, the audience is drawn further and further in as the plot grows more complicated and we inch closer and closer to the edge of our seats.
As the plot's central character, Vito D'Ambrosio phenomenally plays Nathan Berkshire. Nathan serves as the go between for Holly Lilliam Eames and Julius Weishan Lee. He mediates their negations and provides advice to Julius. Vito D'Amborsio breathes immaculate and fascinating life into the character, constructing the most likeable sleaze ball imaginable. Watching his performance, I despised his greasy and corrupt ethics, but I couldn't help but think how exhilarating a job like his must be. He appears to be the PR machine for Julius and other key politicians, which gives him an inordinate amount of power and privileged connections. These advantages make him adept at talking business, but he stumbles through small talk and is rather awkward when beginning conversations, especially with Holly. Vito D'Ambrosio times each awkward moment with precision, drawing out many uncomfortable laughs from the audience. However, the most remarkable element of Vito D'Ambrosio's Nathan is that he is so richly layered and multifaceted that the audience is just blown away by how sublimely human his portrayal is.
Accusing Julius of stalking her and terrifying her, Caroline Hewitt's Holly Lilliam Eames comes across as embittered and vindictive, but there is something more substantial to her demands as well. Julius is said to have taken away a major portion of her life and ruined the dreams she had, so she seeks to regain some of what she lost in her demands. Caroline Hewitt's Holly is never cruel, but she knows what she wants, and she knows she will have to play hardball to even get a minutia of her requests. Caroline Hewitt makes every emotion and desire of her character tangible and understandable. The audience is empathetic and feels for her. We even root for her.
As the accused, Nick Maccarone's Julius Weishan Lee has to work the hardest to earn our sympathy, which he surprisingly does. Nick Maccarone's Julius is personable and intelligent. He really comes across as the kid who made some bad choices, but has grown and matured into a rational and reasonable adult. This is not to say that he is completely removed from the person he was, which is made apparent in the show's climatic scene when he breathtakingly explodes, yelling out of anger and frustration while slamming his hands down on a bar stool. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of his thrilling performance is that when he is in private, casual conversation his voice is untailored and relaxed; however, when recorded on tape, he speaks with a tonality and cadence so similar to President Obama that the moniker of "The Republican Obama" fits the character perfectly. Nick Maccarone's Julius is such a subtly nuanced portrayal that he effortlessly spellbinds the audience with the charisma and charm needed to be a star politician, and we feel for him as his previous choices negatively impact his own hopes and desires.
Euguene Lee's Scenic Design is gorgeous. The set is decorated like a swanky chophouse in downtown Baltimore, but it also serves as Julius' New York City apartment. It's beautifully bland and has a classically stylish appearance, which allows it to easily serve its double duty. The most fun element of the design is that it is a fully functional bar, so pre-show cocktails can be purchased and enjoyed on the stage for this production.
Costume Design by Deb Trout mostly looks great. The costumes are well tailored to each actor. Julius' suits are fantastic modern cuts and wholly tasteful. I was not crazy about his second act tie, but there was nothing inappropriate about the selection. It just looked ugly. I loved the decidedly middle-class, affordable-yet-fashionable angle on Holly's clothing for the first act. Her second act dress is quite flashy, and sexy. When she removed her jacket, my instant thought was that she was about to sing a number from Kander and Ebb's CHICAGO. The fishnet arms are too sexy and provocative for the character that she created in the first act and for the strength she displays in the second act. With that said Deb Trout's costuming for Nathan is superb. The outfits he wears remind me of an oily used car salesman, and nothing would be more appropriate for that character.
Geoffrey Korf's Lighting Design keeps the stage in realistic lighting for almost the entirety of the play. The lights on the east side of the stage create an effect of sunlight shining in through the Open Windows of the chophouse. When in Julius' apartment, the lights stunningly recreate that halogen glow of fancy recessed lighting. Additionally, at the top of the second act there is a strikingly sumptuous and gorgeous cross fade from a single pinpoint spot to the full lights for the first scene. This skillful trick yanks the audience back into the plot after intermission. However, there was one misstep that actually took me completely out of the show as I thought about the light design. At the end of the second act, two gobos are used to give the impression of light coming in through windows at Julius' apartment. These lights, with the gobos, cross each other on the north side of the piano, and I couldn't help but wonder how this would happen if on the same wall there was a window was on the left and right side of the piano. "Are there two streetlights that close together outside Julius' apartment? Why doesn't the light come in the two windows from the same direction?" I found myself thinking. The visual effect of this lighting cue is beautiful, but it doesn't make rational sense.
Sound Design by Matt Starritt uses piano music for scene transitions with remarkable grace and beauty.
The Alley Theatre's production of Kenneth Lin's WARRIOR CLASS is bold, fresh, and poignant. The thought provoking play is insightful and masterfully shows audiences a glimpse behind the scenes of modern politics and the games that are played to keep skeletons in the closet. Kenneth Lin's writing for this play excels at being truthfully realistic, and hopefully will make audiences reassess modern politics and start some fantastic dialogues with one another, friends, and family.
WARRIOR CLASS runs on The Alley's Neuhaus Stage through June 2, 2013. It is a relatively short play, with a 45 minute first act and 37 minute second act. For more information or tickets, please visit www.alleytheatre.org or call (713) 220 - 5700.
All photos by Jann Whaley. Courtesy of the Alley Theatre.
Nick Maccarone as Julius Weishan Lee.
Vito D'Ambrosio as Nathan Berkshire.
Caroline Hewitt as Holly Lilliam Eames.
Nick Maccarone as Julius Weishan Lee.
(Left to Right) Vito D'Ambrosio as Nathan Berkshire and Nick Maccarone as Julius Weishan Lee.