By Mike Hoban
Written by Kenneth Lin; Directed by Dawn M. Simmons; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Daniel H. Jentzen; Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston through November 13
As we suffer through the final week-plus of what may be the most bizarre election cycle in American history, Warrior Class – a riveting politically-themed drama now being presented by the Lyric Stage Company – almost makes us long for the simple, cold-blooded world of old-fashioned backroom hardball politics.
Written by Netflix’ House of Cards writer Kenneth Lin, the work was first staged in 2011, when the very idea of Donald Trump as a viable candidate for the office of President of the United States would have been considered ludicrous. But Warrior Class serves as a reminder that behind every baby-kissing, God-loving, man (or woman) of the people, there is a well-oiled, soulless money machine pushing them from behind.
Warrior Class follows the vetting process for of Julius Lee, a Republican member of the New York State Assembly, who, following an inspirational speech that goes viral on Youtube, becomes the hot choice for a run at the U.S. Congress. Lee is a church-going, Silver Star-decorated Iraq war veteran with Harvard Law degree whose speech resonated with voters across party lines, and he’s caught the eye of the party bosses who see him as a rising star. Nathan Berkshire (the terrific Steven Barkhimer) is the charming and personable but ruthlessly pragmatic career political operative assigned to the check the closet for any particularly disturbing skeletons. He meets with Lee’s former college sweetheart Holly Eames (Jessica Webb), who delivers mostly short, clipped answers during most of the probe, except to infer that the breakup was a little messy.
While wrapping up the investigation, Nathan asks her to sign a paper certifying that all of her remarks were true, and he casually remarks that their breakup sounded like “a relationship typical of the relationships that many young people have.” To which Holly chillingly responds, “He scared the hell out of us. My family. My dorm. We didn’t know what he was going to do. It was the worst time of my entire life.” The red flags come out, and politics as a warped chess game begins, as Nathan, Holly and Julius try to negotiate the best deals for themselves with little regard for democracy, let alone the quaint notions of character, virtue or integrity.
What makes Warrior Class so compelling is that the characters are not painted in black-and-white, but in multiple shades of grey. Julius really does want to do the right thing by his constituents, and doesn’t want to be manipulated by the big money – until he learns it’s the only way the game can be played, and that principles in politics have price tags. And Holly may have been the victim of a harrowing stalker experience, but she’s less interested in healing her soul and psyche than monetizing her trauma. There is almost no moral ambiguity on the part of the characters – they all know what they’re doing to achieve their ends is ethically and spiritually wrong – but it’s a compromise they’re willing to make.
Barkhimer gives a layered performance as Nathan, as he effortlessly switches from a regular guy telling stories about his kids to hard-nosed negotiator, but shows that he’s capable of real human compassion in a scene where he frantically tries to get word on what is happening with his troubled daughter, who just left a drug rehab. Webb conveys real grit as the steely Holly trying to claw back her stolen dreams, and while Michael Tow does not convey the initial charisma one would think that a rising political star such as Julius would possess, he becomes much more convincing on a human level as his world begins to unravel.
This is an extremely well-written, seamlessly directed and fast-paced drama that reminds us that even without the insanity of the current election, politics is still a very dirty game. At least this version delivers some intellectually stimulating entertainment, instead of dread. For more info, go to: www.lyricstage.com