By Samuel L. Leiter
It’s not even six months since Donald J. Trump took office as the 45th president of the United States, but New Yorkers are already seeing a mainstream play, Building the Wall, about his policies. Its writer is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (All the Way), who specializes in political drama, and its two actors are the highly regarded James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie. Such a rapid response to national politics is a theatrical rarity and speaks to the urgency so many feel regarding our current administration.
From the moment two years ago that Trump announced he’d be running for president, not a day has passed when his name hasn’t dominated the news cycle. Mainstream theater, though, usually takes its sweet time to weigh in on current events. For one reason, today’s breaking news quickly becomes ancient history. For another—and this applies to Building the Wall (written in a week)—serious political playwriting shouldn’t be rushed.
In recent months every other play—even classical revivals—seems to have had at least one comic zinger viewable as a satirical shot at the Commander-in-Chief. It reminds me of how audiences in repressive regimes laugh at superficially innocuous lines they interpret as coded messages. But there are no codes in Building the Wall, which, as its title implies, makes no bones about being tied directly to the president’s xenophobic immigration policies.
Set two years from now, the 80-minute play takes place in the steel-gray meeting room (realistically designed by Antje Ellerman and coolly lit by Tyler Micoleau) of a prison in El Paso, Texas. Badge, wearing a prisoner’s orange jumpsuit, is Rick, a Texas-accented, former military man and prison supervisor awaiting execution. The other character is Gloria, an African-American professor who’s come to interview Rick about his crime for a book she plans to write.
Rick was advised not to speak in his own defense during the trial, so Gloria has come to find out the real truth behind what he did. Once he overcomes his initial suspicion of her motives, Rick explains why he believes as strongly as he does in Trump, whose policies led to what caused his eventual imprisonment.
What he says, though, is just a repetition of all the usual Fox News talking points, just as his Hillary Clinton snipes repeat the standard conservative line. There are no surprises here but, for all its irritating familiarity, hearing the issues bantered back and forth between two solid actors has a certain fascination.
Then we get to Rick’s crime. Schenkkan imagines that, following a horrific terrorist act in Times Square, the Trump administration instituted martial law and began incarcerating huge numbers of immigrants. When Rick’s for-profit prison proved increasingly unable to handle the massive overcrowding, and his bottom-line sensitive corporate bosses refused to take responsibility for the nightmarish aftermath, he fell into the trap of believing that desperate times call for desperate measures. Thus his present situation.
Riveting as much of this is, it fails the credibility test. It’s impossible to believe that the “truth” of an incident that makes Abu Ghraib sound like kindergarten hazing is being revealed only in a prison interview with an academic. Did Trump jail the entire media along with the immigrants? It’s also impossible, among other things, to believe that the level of atrocity involved went unreported until it was eventually leaked in yet another implausible development.
Ari Edelson’s direction, helped by Bart Fasbender’s subtly threatening soundscape, manages to maintain the tension but has a few blocking problems. Gloria sometimes takes detailed notes at a table and sometimes doesn’t, although everything Rick says has weight. When, presumably for visual variety, she abandons her notes to talk with him downstage, the prospective accuracy of her reporting flies the coop.
Although neither character is fully believable, Dale does a good job at humanizing Rick’s jittery combination of defiance and guilt. Gloria, however, does little but ask questions, and Tunie can do little to make her anything but a stock character from a TV procedural.
Every day of the current administration provides enough drama for a play based on fact, not farfetched speculation, as to what might and might not occur. While it’s easy enough to sympathize with a critical response to any number of Trump’s policies and their potential implications it would be easier still if such a response hewed closer to reality. That, sad to say, is frightening enough.
Building the Wall
New World Stages
340 W. 50th St., NYC
Through July 9
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).