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New York City Theater

"Building the Wall"
New World Stages

It’s 2019. Times Square has seen a devastating terror attack. Martial law has been declared. President Trump has been impeached and exiled to Mar-a-Lago. Meanwhile, in an El Paso jail, Rick, a prisoner in an orange jump suit, awaits his fate after having been found guilty of a capital crime.

That’s the unsettling background of “Building the Wall,” in which Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan imagines an impending dystopia. Written in a week of “white-hot fury,” the play is an angry polemic, at least in the first half of its 90-minute length. When, in the second half, a rehashing of political topics (immigration, loss of jobs, etc.), gives way to personal events and interpersonal reactions, the evening takes fire.

The setting is a bleak prison interrogation room, complete with a two-way mirror, harsh fluorescent lighting and a boxed-in, claustrophobic ambiance. Here, white former security officer and Army brat Rick opens up to black college professor Gloria. Their political, ethnic and social differences are apparent, if schematic, their inevitable conflicts predetermined by their backgrounds.

She’s curious about how history occurs. Is it a man riding in on a white horse or “just ordinary people in a moment of decision”? Rick’s role in history stems from his job as guard in a private prison housing “illegals.” Though admittedly entangled in decisions and solutions to problems of sanitation, disease and overcrowding, he insists he “was doing the absolute best he could for everybody.”

The analogy to the Nazis is evident. It’s the “banality of evil,” where ordinary people can do their worst during the day and go home to spouses and children and dinner at night. “I wasn’t going to abandon my family,” says Rick. “And even if I had, made some kind of stand or something, so what? What difference would it have made? Somebody else would have just taken my place.”

As Rick, James Badge Dale builds from smart-aleck, dangerous white supremacist to reasonable family man trying to protect his wife and his “regular” way of life. Tamara Tunie makes Gloria more efficient than smug, non-judgmental despite the evidence. She, too, has family issues that superficially connect the two.

Director Ari Edelson varies the action as much as possible in the tight space, encouraging the actors to explore facets of their underwritten characters. Antje Ellermann’s scenic design, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, Junghyun Georgia Lee’s costumes and Bart Fasbender’s sound design create a chilly atmosphere.

The climax is horrifying but it’s late to the rescue, mainly because the form is static and the writing doesn’t go emotionally beyond a two character q-and-a session. Since tension is at a minimum, the real merit of “Building the Wall” is in its value as a cautionary tale. “Can it happen here?” it asks. You bet.

--David A. Rosenberg
May 29, 2017

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