'Pluto' at Actor's Express
‘Pluto’ at Actor’s Express

By Manning Harris

“Warrior Class,” the Alliance Theatre’s new offering at the intimate Hertz Stage, and “Pluto,” the new Steve Yockey play at Actor’s Express, are running neck and neck for the most engrossing one hour and twenty minutes you can spend in a theatre this year.  Actually, there’s no competition, because both plays are terrific and totally different.

First, “Warrior Class,” by Kenneth Lin (it opened first, so we’ll start there); it runs through November 17.  Mr. Lin’s career has skyrocketed since winning the 2006 Alliance/Kandeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, with several plays; and he’s also a writer on the Netflix “House of Cards” TV series.

“Warrior Class” is a taut political thriller perfectly timed for these days of political hardball.  Assemblyman  Julius Lee (Moses Villarama) is being touted as “the Republican Obama” and pushed forward as a congressional candidate.  He is Asian-American, young, attractive, charismatic—the whole package.

Republican party operator Nathan Berkshire, superbly played by Clayton Landey, is currently vetting Lee to make sure there are no skeletons in his closet.  “Know your opponent; know the terrain; know yourself” is his motto.

Nathan is an expert at his job:  He locates an old college girlfriend of Julius’ named Holly (Carrie Walrond Hood).  She seems innocuous at first, but she could definitely be the fly in the ointment, because she remembers her breakup with Julius in college in unsettling, politically inflammatory ways.  She says Julius exhibited very erratic behavior:  “He scared the hell out of us…We didn’t know what he was going to do.  It was the worst time in my entire life.”

Furthermore, she wants a big favor or she will sing like a canary, and bye-bye to Julian’s congressional hopes.  The cagey, experienced Nathan, an old hand at this type of backroom dealing, threatens to unearth a few skeletons in Holly’s closet.

But no one here is guiltless; and maddeningly, no one is a real cad.  Mr. Lin is too good a writer for easy labels or pigeonholes.  Rather it’s the dog-eat-dog game of big-time politics which tends to ensnare all who play:  “It’s a jungle out there,” as Arthur Miller said years ago.

Mimi Lien’s set design is brilliant and becomes part of the ice-cold suspense:  It moves, slowly, in circles, unobtrusively but hypnotically.  It alternates from an upscale kitchen to an old-time steakhouse and almost becomes a fourth character—mesmerizing.  The direction is by Eric Ting.

The three actors are spot-on pros, especially Mr. Landey.  There’s an air of menace here, reminiscent of George Clooney’s recent film “The Ides of March,” though they are totally different works.  “Warrior Class” will clue you to your seat with cool precision.

Actor’s Express is presenting “Pluto,” the latest work of playwright Steve Yockey, Los Angeles based and Atlanta nourished.  The play runs through November 24.

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”  Joan Didion quotes W.B. Yeats, as she comments, “The center was not holding” in her book of essays about the 1960’s called “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

“And it snapped!  It finally snapped…the whole arrangement,” says Edward Albee in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

These two quotes come to mind when thinking of “Pluto,” Yockey’s fatalistic, almost apocalyptic new play.  The author of “Large Animal Games,” “Octopus,” and “Wolves” has taken an  existential leap here; and Yockey fans may have some adjusting to do.

“Pluto” begins innocently enough, as a mother named Elizabeth (Kathleen Wattis) and her son Bailey (Wyatt Fenner) exchange banter around a breakfast table.  He doesn’t like the pop tarts, and she doesn’t think he’s applying himself at school—mundane banter, but there’s already menace in the air.

Things fall apart, as they say.  There’s a tree in their house which appears to have crashed upside down there.  There’s a watchdog named Cerberus (Alison Hastings), not the three-headed hellhound of mythology — well, maybe it is, but it comments on the action and makes suggestions.

The kitchen radio talks to the characters; that is, when it isn’t reporting something horrible that happened at a school that morning at 9:30.  The clocks stay at 9:30 throughout most of the action.

A fiery young woman named Maxine (Stephanie Friedman) bursts into the room expressing rage, contempt, and loss all at once.  Has she been hurt, or is she an avenging angel?

Bailey and Elizabeth continue to talk, now with desperation, denial, and fear.  There’s been a shooting.

The refrigerator seems alive and when opened becomes a passageway to — where?  Clearly, the center is not holding in this increasingly sad and manic world.

“I am the physical manifestation of death,” says Death itself, played by Joe Sykes, who actually is the most comforting, assured character in the play.

Playwright Yockey has been influenced by Tony Kushner (what playwright hasn’t?) and his masterwork, “Angels in America.”  When Death puts the “cosmic goggles” on Elizabeth, those goggles are straight out of “Angels: Part II.”  What does she see?  The fall of Adam and Eve?  The consequence of ignorance in the world?  Or does she see Truth — as much as she can take?

“Pluto” has a lot of questions; and you must provide your own answers.  In this we are assisted mightily by Director Melissa Foulger and her sensitivity.  We are especially in debt to the actors—what a superb cast.  Wyatt Fenner (on loan from L.A.) and Kathleen Wattis are so good it hurts.  Stephanie Friedman, Joe Sykes, and Alison Hastings are flawless.

To say playwright Yockey does not coddle his audience is putting it mildly.  He dares you to enter the universe of “Pluto.”  If you emerge with more compassion and empathy, you can thank him — and your own insight.  This play, as you may have guessed, is not for kids. But you won’t soon forget it.

For more information, visit alliancetheatre.org and  actorsexpress.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.