Unlike such political plays as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, David Hare’s Stuff Happens and the current Oslo by J.T. Rogers, Building the Wall is speculative political fiction. Projected into the not-so-distant future, it takes place after a terrorist attack has released a dirty bomb in Times Square irradiating two square blocks. As a result, President Trump has declared Martial Law and begun rounding up millions of immigrants for deportation. This extraordinary move which had gotten out hand has led to his impeachment and exile to Palm Springs.
Building the Wall takes place in 2019 in a prison meeting room in a federal lock-up in El Paso, Texas. Gloria, an African American historian, has come to interview Rick, a white man, who is awaiting sentencing for his role as the former warden of a new Magnum Security private prison facility for illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. It is Rick’s role in the disposal of bodies after a cholera epidemic in the overcrowded facility which has landed him in prison.
Gloria wants to set the record straight as to Rick’s involvement. He claims to be a scapegoat who was only acting under corporate orders as events spun out of control due to the huge influx of detainees. As Rick’s lawyer did not allow him to testify in court, Rick’s side of the story has not been heard. However, as he has previously been associated with the military, law enforcement, and white supremacy groups, Gloria wonders whether he had any ingrained biases or hatred toward Hispanics or Muslims.
The play develops entirely as an interview with Gloria impartially asking questions and Rick unemotionally answering them. While the story is absorbing and pulls the viewer into the events being described, the very lack of heat in Edelson’s production is problematic. Though the day to day events at the El Paso facility become more and more disturbing, the temperature never rises as it is all told on the same level. Dale and Tunie are convincing in their roles but there is no chemistry and little interaction between them. This tends to dissipate the appalling events that Rick finally gets to. A humming noise by sound designer Bart Fasbender which is intended to ratchet up the proceedings is more distracting than tension-inducing.
Antje Ellermann’s realistically bland all blue-grey, prison meeting room and Junghyun Georgia Lee’s suitable costumes (orange prison uniform for Rick and Gloria’s white blouse, black pants and light blue sweater) add no color to the play. Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall is an admirable and ambitious attempt to write a cautionary play as to where the current political climate may take us. Both the form of the play, an interview between only two characters, and Ari Edelson’s impassive and matter-of-fact production undercut the play’s effectiveness. However, there is no denying the play’s message which is one every American should heed: Rick’s final line about the meaning of the wall is absolutely devastating. We need more plays like this right now. This is a step in the right direction.
Building the Wall (through June 4, 2017)
New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.buildingthewallplay.com
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes without an intermission