Ambitious young East Coast Assemblyman Julius Lee, a first- generation Chinese-American, former Marine and gifted speechmaker known as the “Republican Obama,” is gearing up to run for Congress.
In the first plotline, which is the most interesting and accessible of the two, his potential candidacy — promoted by older, more experienced political adviser Nathan — is thrown into jeopardy when a college girlfriend, Holly, materializes.
Holly refuses to vet her old boyfriend. When she broke up with him 20 years ago, he stalked her for a while. She was terrified of him and can’t envision him as a stable person, let alone a congressman. For reasons of her own she is seizing the opportunity to blackmail him.
Written (and acted) with mindful attention to all the ambiguities involved, it’s a thought-provoking scenario.
In the other plotline, Nathan is guiding the somewhat naive and idealistic Julius through a morass of political maneuverings: the tit-for-tat, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, sleazy deal-making that characterizes politics among the “warrior class.”
That plotline involves lots of talk, some of which feels like filler dialogue, with many names tossed around of offstage people — O’Brien, Hollister and more — and fraught references to the lobbying and wheeling-and-dealing of special-interest groups that threaten to upend Julius’ goals.
The latter plotline provides context in that it indicates the larger American political picture that playwright Lin is examining. Still, those scenes, which take place in Julius’ kitchen, might work better in a TV show with lots of close-ups, and with the two men talking while walking down long corridors or engaged in realistic physical activities (Lin is also an accomplished TV writer, including for “House of Cards” on Netflix).
Here, however, they are rather awkwardly staged by director Leslie Martinson and are confusing and stilted.
More satisfying are the scenes between Nathan and Holly, and Julius and Holly. All three characters have affecting backstories that gradually come to light, packed with tension and emotion.
Under Martinson’s carefully calibrated direction, the actors — Pun Bandhu and Robert Sicular as Julius and Nathan, respectively, and Delia MacDougall as the tough former law student Holly — mine every last nuance of the script. No bad guys here — just three needy, striving people caught in a queasy moral dilemma.
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 3
Tickets: $19 to $73
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org