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Building the Wall

James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie    Photos by Carol Rosegg




                 By Ron Cohen


Robert Schenkkan is a playwright who can dramatize politics, as well demonstrated in his 2014 Tony Award-winning All the Way, which depicted in engrossing fashion Lyndon B. Johnson’s struggle to get his civil rights bill through Congress. In his latest work, Schenkkan takes on an up-to-the minute brouhaha, President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. But this time around, Schenkkan is liberally – perhaps too liberally -- mixing fact and fiction, painting a dire picture of what Trump’s policies could lead to.


Schenkkan has said he sat down to write the play last October in a fury, brimming over with anger in the face of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, and that fury is undisguised. As with any overt political piece, audience reaction is probably going to depend on individual leanings. Trump supporters might well call it an hysterical liberal rant, while Trump resistors could hail it as an astutely imaginative critique of a nefarious policy. Or they may not. Some lefties might indeed feel the playwright has simply gone overboard in his aversion to the administration. As a piece of dramatic writing, the suspense ebbs and flows in a welter of exposition, but in the overall it does build – if in a formulaic way -- to a shocking conclusion and makes its point unabashedly.


The play is a two-hander, tautly directed by Ari Edelson and performed with mounting intensity by James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie, as they work through the script’s procedural format, familiar to anyone who watches any of television’s plethora of crime shows. 


A female history professor (Tunie) and a prison inmate (Dale) face each other in an interrogation room. The professor, with a prospective book in mind, has been granted interview time with the prisoner to learn more about the motives behind the heinous crime he has committed. During the trial, the prisoner was advised by his lawyer to say nothing, so the professor certainly has a lot of questions to ask, and the play certainly takes its time in revealing what that crime was.


We learn a lot about the life of the prisoner, named Rick, a lean, jumpy fellow with his shaved head and orange prison jumpsuit. He talks pretty openly about his difficult relationship with his father, who was in the Air Force and worshipped in the “church of Budweiser,” and his religious mother. We hear about a brother who was killed in the Marines, joining up after 9/11, and how Rick wound up in the Army, served in the Military Police, and after that joined a corporation running privately managed prisons.


He tells how he became a fan of Candidate Trump, admiring his style on the televised primary debates and then serving as security at two of his rallies. He relates how Trump made him feel comfortable and a part of something. Eventually, the professor’s questioning gets around to the “Times Square thing.” It’s not the actual event in Times Square that happened May 18, when an apparently mentally ill man drove his car into the pedestrian area, killing one person and injuring some 22 others. Rather Schenkkan’s narrative moves into the future, imagining a terrorist attack that destroys two square blocks in the middle of Manhattan. Trump declares martial law; civil liberties are shut down, and there are massive deportation roundups of immigrants.


The problem then becomes what to do with these detainees, whose countries of origin will not accept them. Rick is assigned by his bosses to manage a former prison facility as a holding area, but the overflow of detainees becomes catastrophic.


While Schenkkan sympathetically explores Rick’s shifting states of mind, the plotting becomes clamorous with uncomfortable echoes of the Holocaust, as Rick, pushed by his bosses and government representatives, finds a final solution. And in the end, Schenkkan sees his horror story as a metaphor for Trump’s call to “build a wall.”


Within the parameters of Schenkkan’s screed-like storytelling, the actors perform commendably. Dale is often a riveting figure as he explains himself and his attitudes with a lacerating clarity, lightening things at times with a bitter humor. Tunie has a particularly affecting moment when she describes the soul-scarring racism to which her character, as a young African-American girl, was exposed. Mainly, however, she serves as a sounding board for the prisoner’s revelations, but she fills the character with a real presence.


Building the Wall may serve as an example of theatre responding quickly to current events, but let’s hope as time moves on, there will be more measured and more artful responses to the polarizing and chaotic politics of our time.


Off-Broadway play

Playing at New World Stages.

340 West 50th Street


Playing until July 9