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Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan’s two-character play reflecting a hot-button political issue proves a solid reminder of how quickly and effectively theater can respond to what’s going on in the world. Set in a not-too-distant future in which President Donald Trump’s xenophobic policies have resulted in a horrific series of events, Building the Wall presents a scenario that now feels sadly all too plausible. The dystopian drama has recently been given productions in several theaters around the country, with many more likely to follow.
James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie constitute the estimable cast for this off-Broadway bow of the play, set in 2019 in the stark meeting room of an El Paso, Texas, prison. It’s there that Rick (Dale), a death-row inmate being held in solitary confinement, is allowed to meet Gloria (Tunie), an African-American history professor who has come to interview him for a project that might land her a “big-ass book advance.”
The details of Rick’s crime emerge oh-so-slowly, with Schenkkan (who’s previously ventured into political themes with his LBJ plays All the Way and The Great Society) teasing them out over 90 minutes. As Gloria gently but forcefully probes, Rick talks about his “military brat” upbringing at the hands of an abusive father and his decision to join the Army after the events of 9/11. Upon his return home, he entered law enforcement and worked his way up to managing private prisons.
He also became increasingly interested in Trump’s presidential aspirations. Having attended one of Trump’s rallies, he remembers, “I felt comfortable there.” And he personally handled security at two of Trump’s events, where he got to meet the candidate.
“I have to ask,” Gloria responds, in one of the evening’s few comic moments. “The hands — are they small?”
It’s when Rick ominously refers to the “Times Square event” that occurred shortly after the election that the play’s darker elements fully emerge. As a result of the terrorist attack that resulted in “two square blocks irradiated,” President Trump declared martial law and ordered the round-up of millions of immigrants for deportation. Thousands wound up being sent to the prison Rick managed, resulting in overcrowded crisis conditions including a cholera epidemic. And it only got worse from there.
Building the Wall contains passionate anger and urgency and, despite the occasional didactic exchange in which the characters all too obviously serve as mouthpieces for political arguments, it’s extremely well written. Rick, who could serve as a model for the expression “banality of evil,” registers as a believably ordinary man who becomes induced to commit horrific acts. His explanations for his actions often make disturbing sense.
Despite its predictable aspects — it’s not hard to guess where the story is going — the play still emerges as powerful political theater. It never feels static, thanks to Ari Edelson’s taut staging and the gripping performances. Tunie does extremely well, even if her character is essentially reactive, and Dale projects a coiled physicality and emotional intensity that proves compelling from first minute to last. That we still feel sympathy for his character despite everything revealed is a testament not only to the actor’s talent, but also to writing that never succumbs to one-dimensionality.
Venue: New World Stages, New York
Cast: James Badge Dale, Tamara Tunie
Playwright: Robert Schenkkan
Director: Ari Edelson
Set designer: Antje Ellermann
Costume designer: Junghyun Georgia Lee
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Music & sound designer: Bart Fasbender
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Rebecca Gold, Louise Gund, Ted Snowden, Stephanie P. McClelland, Scott M. Delman, Barbara Freitag, Eric Falkenstein/Judy Gordon Cox, Will Trice
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