A “what if” scenario can lead a writer anywhere. Robert Schenkkan goes to the near-future to imagine horrifying aftershocks of Donald Trump’s presidency in the cautionary two-hander “Building the Wall,” at New World Stages.
It’s 2019. In a Texas prison meeting room Rick (James Badge Dale), 40-ish and wearing an orange jumpsuit, is interviewed by Gloria (Tamara Tunie), a middle-aged college professor. After initial awkward chatter about her being African American (“Is my race a problem for you?,” she asks), they slowly get to the business of why they’re there. The play keeps inching toward revealing all.
After a terror attack in Times Square, Trump declared martial law. The detention of immigrants intensified and led to a Nazi-esque death camp. Rick, a devoted Trump supporter, is up to his eyeballs in the detention center’s inhuman atrocities. How could this happen — again? One person at a time, of course. “Every landslide begins with a single rock suddenly in motion,” says Gloria, whose specialty is history.
She has that in common with Schenkkan, a writer deeply immersed in history and politics whose works include the Pulitzer-winning “The Kentucky Cycle” and the Tony-winning “All the Way,” about President Lyndon Johnson.
Written in just a week before the election, the play seeks to push buttons and on that level succeeds. It’s also fast moving and credibly acted. Dale’s performance is strong and believable. Tunie’s take on an academic could use a bit of fine-tuning.
Dramatically, it’s a mostly static hour and a half, even if director Ari Edelson occasionally has grumbling ambient sound pumped in to underscore moments. And details nag. Gloria presumably has arrived to dig deep into Rick’s psyche — but most of her questions would have already come up at trial. Some details of what goes down at the detention center also raise red flags. There are no reporters, no protesters? Maybe, maybe not.
Despite weaknesses, the play has an ace up its sleeve — and it saves it for last. That’s when Rick, recalling a dream, if not a nightmare, reminds that when it comes to “Building the Wall” you don’t need bricks and mortar when you’ve got enough corpses.