Kenneth Lin could be the face of the Alliance Theatre's Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition. The prize, developed to recognize and cultivate rising young theatrical talents, tapped Lin as its second-ever winner for the knotty drama said Saïd, which made its world premiere on the Alliance Hertz Stage in 2006. Since then, Lin has not only gone on to greater acclaim in theater, he's part of the writing staff of Netflix's Emmy-nominated "House of Cards."
For the competition's 10th anniversary season, the Hertz Stage presents new plays by previous winners, and Lin's entry, Warrior Class, seems cut from the same cloth as the Kevin Spacey political drama. As a taut account of backroom brinkmanship unfolds, Warrior Class feels like a successful fusion of live theater and compelling episodic television.
Like "House of Cards," Warrior Class depicts characters who attempt to match personal ambitions with political realities. Nathan (Clayton Landey), veteran New York Republican party boss and "money guy," grooms rising assemblyman Julius Lee (Moses Villarama) for higher office, as pundits call him "the Republican Obama." In the opening scene, Nathan meets with Holly (Carrie Walrond Hood) as part of the candidate's vetting process since she was Julius' college girlfriend. We discover that the circumstances of their breakup could sabotage Julius' political future, and Nathan takes a carrot-and-stick approach to ensuring her silence.
Warrior Class partly hinges on a he said/she said approach to Julius and Holly's history, since either of them could misrepresent the truth in the name of personal advantage. While Spacey's "House of Cards" character pursues his amoral goals in the name of vaulting ambition, all of Warrior Class's roles have deeply personal agendas outside of simple political advantage.
In the play's program, Lin remarks that the idea for Warrior Class came from when he realized that whenever he heard about mass shootings in the news, "a little part of myself worried that the shooter would be a young man of Asian descent." Through the Julius character, Warrior Class touches on the idea that public figures of a particular ethnicity can be held somehow accountable by other news makers of that ethnicity, at least in the eyes of unreflective voters.
Villarama conveys the charisma and control of a would-be career politician, while hinting at cracks in Julius' façade: Does his discipline indicate that he's trying to keep serious personality flaws in check? While Hood's performance seems initially flat, Holly emerges as a sympathetic "civilian" playing a difficult game to redeem an unhappy life. At times, Landey's more florid acting doesn't mesh with the other two players, but that could simply reflect that Nathan belongs to an older generation of political power players, one less concerned with social niceties.
Director Eric Ting gives the play plenty of momentum, and oversees the subtle use of revolves — actors sit at restaurant booths that almost imperceptibly rotate, like a patient cinematic tracking shot. At a brisk 75 minutes, Warrior Class feels like it ends too suddenly, especially given that the action hinges on Julius and the content of his character. The play could use some kind of private moment with him, ambiguous or otherwise, as an epilogue or final beat. In Warrior Class, Lin creates such a compelling world that even a highly satisfying stage play feels like it could plumb even greater depths.