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Building the Wall

by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Building the Wall
James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie in Building the Wall. Photographer: Joan Marcus

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle), said about his current play Building the Wall, “I wrote this in a white-hot fury. We no longer live in a world that is business as usual — Trump has made that very clear — and if theater is going to remain relevant, we must become faster to respond."

Schenkkan took seven days to write the play and in one way, he was right.  The play is timely and relevant, opening at a time when White House rhetoric bombards us with newsbreak over newsbreak and last week's top tweet is quickly old news. Yet, Schenkkan's idea of rapid response to current events through theater is also risky. Building the Wall, now at New World Stages, is basically preaching to the choir, repeating old facts without the drama and insight of new ideas.

The cautionary tale opens in 2019, post-Donald Trump, who has been impeached and "exiled to Palm Beach."  In an El Paso, Texas prison meeting room, history professor, Gloria (Tamara Tunie) has come to interview  prisoner, Rick (James Badge Dale), a conservative Trump-supporter, about the crimes that led to his incarceration on death row. 

Rick's story relates the terrorist attack that "irradiated" two blocks of Times Square.  Trump responded with martial law restricting civil liberties and the press.  Hispanics, Muslims and other "suspects," were collected and sent to containment camps situated in prisons privately owned and under contract with the United States government for just this purpose.  Through a series of cost-cutting, the camps quickly degenerated into horrendous overcrowding and finally mass exterminations.  Rick, who was working in the prison that carried out these barbarities, later went on trial.

Now on death row, Rick wants to tell his story, explaining that he was also victimized as a scapegoat for higher-ups who made the rules.  If he refused to follow orders, he claims,  “somebody else would have just taken my place.”

As harrowing as the events were and how unsettling are his excuses, Building the Wall is told completely through face-to-face conversation.  This diminishes color and depth in Rick's character and the events are so sketchy that the dramatic value is stunted.  While crisply paced, director Ari Edelson's action in the play involves Rick's pacing around the room and Gloria suddenly slapping him in the face for an ignorant statement.

The actors in this two-hander are credible.  Wearing an orange jumpsuit, Dale's carved features are taut as he justifies Rick's support for Donald Trump using the same right-wing sentiments we hear today from Trump's supporters.  Tunie shows Gloria's determination to delve behind Dale's statements.  She challenges Rick when he blusters about capturing Saddam Hussein when we invaded Iraq.  She responds, "Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11." 

Scenic designer Antje Allermann designed an unsurprisingly bare prison meeting room with a metal table and chairs and a window on the back wall through which prison guards can watch them.  Theatrical touches are effective, like Tyler Micoleau's use of sudden lighting outages and Bart Fasbender's slamming cell doors and loud shouts from prisoners.  Subtly suspicious is a buzzing sound, sometimes audible, occasionally fading.

This is Theater in the age of Trump, offering viewpoints that reflect the zeitgeist and simplistic rhetoric at a time when much should be scrutinized.  Unfortunately, in Building the Wall, Schenkkan does not present analytic insight of where we are as a society, just a horrific hint of where campaign slogans like "build a wall" can lead us.  It has happened before and we have to wonder how complex political perception can evolve and progress in this atmosphere. 

Building the Wall
Theater: New World Stages
340 West 50th St. 212-239-6200.
Preview: May 12, 2017; Opening: May 24, 2017; Closing July 9, 2017
Running time: 90 minutes.  No intermission.
Written:  Robert Schenkkan
Directed: Ari Edelson

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors, May 2017

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