“Building The Wall,” Robert Schenkkan’s chilling two character play that imagines the consequences of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, is clearly meant to help rally the resistance. It seems to be serving this purpose effectively in productions around the country, from L.A. to D.C., and the producers at New York’s New World Stages are no different: They have announced that ten percent of the ticket proceeds will go to immigrant rights groups, and they are also holding talk backs with such guests as Archibald Cox, Jr, the son of Watergate special prosecutor.
There’s no question that Schenkkan is a political playwright, but he is also an adept dramatist. He won the Pulitzer for “The Kentucky Cycle, ” a 1993 theatrical marathon that took us through 200 years of the dark side of American history. His most recent play on Broadway, the LBJ biodrama “All The Way” starring Bryan Cranston, won the Tony Award for best play. “Building The Wall,” written quickly, may not win the playwright any more of those big prizes; it is comparatively modest, even restrained. Yet it is also an intelligent, well-played and ultimately potent drama. And it has a killer of a last line.
It is 2019 and a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, Rick (James Badge Dale), has done something terrible; we don’t yet know what. Gloria, a history professor (Tamara Tunie) has come to the visiting room in this prison in El Paso, Texas to interview him. Over the next 90 minutes, we learn more about their lives, especially Rick’s. After a church-going childhood, some standard stupid “teenage stuff” and a series of low-paying jobs, Rick joined the Army after 9/11 and was assigned to the Military Police. “I was good at something for once.” After the service, he went into law enforcement, and wound up working at a private prison in Texas, getting promoted until he was in charge. We learn enough about his background and his character to believe him when he says: “Look, I’m not crazy; it was the situation.”
A terrorist incident leads President Trump to declare martial law, and Rick’s prison starts filling up with immigrants slated for deportation. But the situation becomes unmanageable, then ghastly – and the solution even worse.
If the scenario is speculative dystopian fiction, “Building the Wall” is terrifyingly plausible, grounded in actual events and credible characters, even when Schenkkan has them debate such current issues as immigration, terrorism, private prisons, racial tension, conspiracy theories, Trump. It helps that James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie so capably inhabit their characters, under the assured direction of Ari Edelson.
Schenkkan says that he occasionally updates the script, but, even without any changes, its timeliness can be unsettling. I saw “Building the Wall” very shortly after a driver crashed his car into Times Square; the terrorist incident in the play that leads to the declaration of martial law occurs in Times Square.
“Building the Wall”
New World Stages
Written by Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Ari Edelson
Cast: Tamara Tunie, James Badge Dale
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
“Building the Wall” is scheduled to run at New World Stages through July 9, 2017.