‘Warrior Class’ A Riveting Examination of (Dirty) Old School Politics (4.5 Stars)


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


URT’s Romantic Comedy “When January Feels Like Summer” is a Charmer (4.5 Stars)


by Mike Hoban

‘When January Feels Like Summer’ – Written by Cori Thomas; Directed by Benny Sato Ambush; Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Costume Design by Leslie Held; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay. Presented by the Underground Railway Theater at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge through November 13


When January Feels Like Summer, the charming slice of life comedy now being mounted by the Underground Railway Theater Company in Central Square, is a testament to the idea that ordinary (appearing) lives can be quite extraordinary if you take the time to look closely enough. Set in and around a New York bodega, January begins as a rather routine dramedy, but slowly sucks us in to the point where we care deeply about the characters by play’s end – despite their cringe-worthy (and all-too-human) foibles.

Nirmala (Sanaa Kazi), a thirty-something Indian woman, runs the bodega and lives with her transgendered accountant brother Ishan, who announces at the beginning of the play that he is quitting his job and will begin living fully as a trans woman named Indira (Mesma Belsare) from now on. Nirmala has her own challenges, as her husband (a porn “enthusiast” who never once touched her during the marriage) has been on life support for three years and is showing no signs of improving. Indira has been trying to convince Nirmala to pull the plug so that she can begin to really live her life – and also pay for Indira’s sexual re-assignment surgery when she collects the insurance money upon his death. If it sounds like the setup for a morality play, fear not, this a romantic comedy through and through – just not a very conventional one. Unbeknownst to Nirmala, she is the apple of the eye of one of her customers, Joe (David J. Curtis), a somewhat shy African-American sanitation worker for the city (who is trying to overcome his own unfortunate foray into marriage) who is trying to work up the courage to ask her for a date during his shopping excursions.

A secondary plot involves buddies Jeron (Marc Pierre) and DeVaun (Seth Hill), a pair of post high school Burger King workers who provide most of the belly laughs for this very funny work. Jeron is the brains of the duo, but is clueless when it comes to women. DeVaun is clueless about nearly everything else except “getting with women”, and also delivers hysterical malapropisms with the effortlessness of the late Borscht Belt comic Norm Crosby. Inadvertently, they end up embarking on a search for meaning to their existence when a textbook case of how homophobic misinformation can go horribly wrong ends up with serendipitously comic results.

The transformation of the characters begins when DeVaun becomes unnerved after a “flamboyant” man from his mother’s church touches his shoulder and asks him to come with him, and he interprets the act as a sexual overture. His sense of morality outraged and his masculinity challenged, he and Jeron decide to “protect the neighborhood children” from the predator by putting up posters in local bodegas, warning the neighborhood about the man. As horrifying as this sounds, the well-intentioned bad idea turns out remarkably well, and paves the way for a series of healing interactions between the play’s five characters.

January does not impress early on, but gathers momentum as the actors move from fairly stock portrayals to become three dimensional. Playwright Thomas has a terrific ear for dialogue, especially the comic variety, and while the plot points stretch credulity, they never feel overly contrived. It’s also a beautifully integrated depiction of what real diversity looks like when it’s not theatrically forced, with Indira being the most fully realized character (thanks in part to an outstanding performance by Belsare). So when she takes an extraordinarily risky chance on love, we hold our collective breath that she will come out unscathed.

Director Sato elicits strong performances from the entire cast, and newcomer Seth Hill (junior at BU) makes an especially noteworthy debut as DeVaun. The scene where he attempts to educate his smarter friend Jeron (Marc Pierre) in the art of seducing a woman is alone worth the price of admission. The set design is simple but fairly brilliant in its utility (there are a half-dozen locations on the tight stage), and sound designer Dewey Dellay paints a believable city soundscape. “When January Feels Like Summer” is a fresh take on the traditional romantic comedy, and a welcome break from the madness of this insane election season. Go. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/



New Rep’s ‘Good’ Draws Chilling Parallels to Current Political Climate (4 Stars)


‘Good’ – Written by C.P. Taylor; Directed by Jim Petosa; Scenic Design by Ji Young Han; Lighting Design by Bridget Doyle; Costume Design by Megan Mills and Theona White.Co-presented by New Repertory Theatre with Boston Center for American Performance, at the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through October 30.

 A few short weeks after 9/11, comedian Gilbert Gottfried was participating in a roast for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner when he decided to offer up a tasteless joke about the tragedy. The stunned audience broke into a chorus of boos and hisses, before one patron yelled out, “too soon” – meaning that there would come a time when it would be okay to make jokes, but that was definitely not the time. A variation on the “too soon” theme might be “too close to home” and that may be the case with “Good”, the superbly acted and cleverly directed “play with music” now being presented at the New Rep in conjunction with the Boston Center for American Performance.

Appropriately enough, there have been a number of locally produced works this theater season that mirror this bizarre election year. Flat Earth Theatre (“Blinders”) and Gloucester Stage (“The Totalitarians”) both staged comic productions that dealt with the potential democratic election of a fascist-leaning character in the U.S., but they were a lot easier to dismiss as the absurd comedies that they are than “Good”, a drama that focuses on how an allegedly “good man” was seduced by the lure of career success to aid the Nazis with their most heinous atrocities. And while it may be a stretch to compare Hitler to the current candidate, the hate and misinformation being lapped up by his supporters, combined with the media’s failure to acknowledge that yes, it really could happen here, makes for some uncomfortable viewing.

John Halder (Michael Kaye) is a literary professor in 1930’s Germany, whose fictional novel featuring a “humane” view of euthanasia has sparked the interest of the some of the officials in the Nazi Party, including Hitler himself. In the early going, there is nothing we learn about Halder that would lead us to believe that he would be susceptible to the allure of such an evil philosophy. He’s a devoted husband to his emotionally crippled wife, father to his children, and mindful son to an elderly (and failing) mother, and he has a passion for the humanities as well. He has one small problem, however, which he describes to the audience as “bringing music into the dramatic moments of my life”. In other words, in stressful situations, bands begin to play in his head in OCD fashion – which he uses as a way to escape.

He goes to see his best friend Maurice, a Jewish psychiatrist, (who, like Halder, dismisses the Nazi movement as a political fad), and tries to downplay the affliction, but Maurice tells him, perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing, that “people dont go to analysts to streamline their livesthey go to free themselves from agony.” And he begins to free himself from that agony, essentially by slowly dismantling his moral compass through a series of rationalizations and justifications that lead to him being a major contributor to the most horrifying aspects of the Nazi reign.

It starts with an affair with a young student, which leads him to eventually abandon his wife, children and blind and demented mother. Along his journey we see him find justifications for book burnings, Kristallnacht, and eventually the death camps – all while maintaining a friendship with Maurice, who watches in horror as his friend calmly turns into a monster. And while it may be the point of the play – that we accept little horrors incrementally like a frog boiling to death as the temperature of a pot of water slowly rises – Halder’s transformation sometimes seems to come with little resistance. Which may also be the point. Is Halder really “good”? His behavior becomes so callous and self-centered so early in the play that it could be that this was his true disposition all along. Either way, some dramatic tension is lost as a result of there being no obvious moral conflict for Halder.

Which is not to say this is not a very good show. It begins almost as a comedy, and in the first act, there are a lot of laughs generated through the humor of observing human behavior. Tim Spears is stellar as Maurice, maintaining a comic flair through even the bleakest of scenes. Kaye is equally brilliant as the disaffected Halder, and by the time we see him putting on his SS uniform to report for work at Auschwitz, he may as well be going to his job as the CEO of a nonprofit. Jim Petosa does a great job directing this challenging work, which surreally combines comedy, drama and a cabaret experience at times. The cast is uniformly solid, with strong performances from top to bottom. Set designer Ji Young Han also deserves kudos for a very effective and multifunctional set.

This is well worth seeing, but those of us who are still a little squeamish about the upcoming election may have difficulty detaching from the implications of the obvious parallels. For more information, go to: http://www.newrep.org/