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Building the Wall

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 24, 2017

James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie
Photo by Carol Rosegg

It's called Building the Wall, and yes, the wall referred to is That Wall. But titles can be deceiving, and the wall doesn't come up at all until the final minute or two of Robert Schenkkan's brief two-hander at New World Stages, set in the near future. To reach the wall, we first witness a political fever dream of Schenkkan's, whose other political work, All the Way, planted its feet in the more solid ground of the 1960s civil rights struggle. He's clearly concerned, as aren't we all, with how things are going, and wants us to contemplate a nightmare scenario of how current leaders might abuse their powers and lay waste to America's give-me-your-tired-your-poor heritage. But he's gone about it in a curious way, one that doesn't resonate as strongly as he probably wanted it to.

Wisely, perhaps, Schenkkan doesn't populate the stage with the likes of Trump and Sessions and Kellyanne. Trump's been impeached, anyway. It's 2019, and we're in the meeting room of a maximum-security prison in Texas, gray and antiseptic and topped by an imposing chain link fence. (Antje Ellermann did the intimidating design, the appropriately harsh lighting is by Tyler Micoleau, and Bart Fasbender's sound design, with inmate unrest echoing beyond the visiting-room walls, is excellent.) Enter Rick (James Badge Dale), who's in solitary on Death Row, and Gloria (Tamara Tunie), a history professor who's here to interview him and get his story out in his own words. Cagily, Schenkkan has them dance a tentative pas de deux where they feel each other out, treading carefully over the innate conflicts: he's white, she's black; he's a Trump Republican, she probably voted for Hillary and/or Bernie; he's in there, she's not. But Schenkkan reveals vital information more slowly than he has to, and leaves out some salient facts.

What we find out is this: Shortly after Trump's initial immigration bans, the ones that various courts overturned just a couple of months ago, there was a terrorist attack on Times Square. The president invoked martial law and began aggressively pursuing and locking up illegal immigrants; many were housed in a large for-profit prison, managed by Rick; efforts to repatriate them stalled; and the authorities came in with a plan to ease the severe overcrowding, which, trying-not-to-be-a-spoiler alert, echoed some of the worst excesses of attempted world domination of the not-too-distant past. Trump was impeached and flew comfortably off to Mar-a-Lago. President Pence? President Ryan? A revolution? Schenkkan isn't saying, and there's a lot more he's mum on.

Rick we find out plenty about: Army brat; semi-abusive father; high school dropout; left home and picked up odd jobs; enlisted in the Army, out of post-9/11 patriotism, he says, and became a well-respected MP; married, had a daughter, and cultivated a successful career; then, wham, I can't tell you, but it was devastating. Dale has the right George W. Bush accent and speech rhythms, and he works hard to bring out whatever decent qualities Rick has. Smartly, or maybe it's Ari Edelson's direction, he paces like the caged animal Rick is when agitated, and crouches in a corner when he's regretful or avoiding the truth. And he wells convincingly up when dwelling on immediate family. A very complete portrayal of an ambiguous hero, one who seemed a standard-issue Trumpian until extraordinary circumstances intervened. He is, as Rick probably correctly believes, a fall guy in a larger tragedy, with the higher-ups slithering away.

But Gloria remains a mystery. Tunie projects intelligence and warmth, but she can do only so much with such a sketchy blueprint. We know that Gloria experienced racism at a tender, impressionable age, and that she lost her favorite brother in the war. And that's about it. Schenkkan gives both of them long but not always revealing speeches, sidestepping—especially with Gloria—matters of family, career, and emotional core that might further define the character and raise the stakes. And Edelson keeps the pace unnaturally up, with many of those instant-articulate-response exchanges that would never happen in real life.

Schenkkan has a certain political tunnelvision that simplifies his arguments, though he burrows deeply into the limited ground he's plowing. In All the Way, he so focused on LBJ and the Civil Rights Act that it might have left you with no idea that Vietnam or the Great Society were happening. Building the Wall goes into great and laudable detail about rising xenophobia and its possible calamitous outcome, but don't look for any mention of Russia, Comey, Flynn, Obamacare-bashing, or tax reform. In this environment it's hard to keep up with the latest outrage, but a more widescreen view of the current political landscape might make it feel more like a play and less like a screed.

What Building the Wall does do, though Sweat did it better (and though Sweat ends in 2008), is humanize the voter base that fueled the electoral upset. Rick has a lively monologue about how he ended up supporting Trump that eloquently summarizes voter discontent and mistrust circa 2016, and shows how a battered middle class might applaud the candidate's brash populism. We're two nations right now, folks, and surely there's value in sitting both sides at a table where they can hash out their viewpoints civilly and literately. And Schenkkan's argument that more unchecked trampling on American rights and traditions might lead to really dire consequences is unsettling, if not entirely persuasive here. But while Rick or Gloria is going into lavish detail about things that happened to them decades ago, you'll be wondering about omitted specifics in their lives, and about what happened to the country between now and 2019. Building the Wall is both too talky, and not talky enough.

Building the Wall
Through July 9
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, just off of Times Square between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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