James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie Photos by
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
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.
Playing at New World Stages.
340 West 50th Street
Playing until July 9