Theater review by Adam Feldman
Journalism, they say, is the rough first draft of history. Building the Wall is the rough first draft of a journalistic play. Robert Schenkkan has said that he wrote it in a single furious week before the election of Donald Trump, and both his anger and his speed are plain. A sloppy soup of factoids, clichés and dire portent, the show may elicit standing ovations from those who already share its fears, but they’re only standing in place.
The year is 2019, and American anti-immigration policies, backed by the imposition of martial law, have rapidly gone from slippery slope to mudslide. Rick (James Badge Dale), a Trump-supporting Texas military veteran from an abusive family, has been convicted of overseeing atrocities at a privately run immigrant detention center; he is being interviewed in prison by Gloria (Tamara Tunie), a gracious and patient African-American college professor. To call their encounter a play at all seems generous; they are barely characters, there is hardly any conflict or tension between them, and most of their dialogue consists of rehashing what both of them already know.
Exposition doesn’t come much balder than it does here. Take this exchange, for example. Gloria: “In August 2016 the Justice Department publicly announced they would be phasing out the use of all private prisons.” Rick: “But they didn’t, did they?” Gloria: “No, the election changed that. On February 23, 2017, the new Attorney General Sessions announced he was in support of private prisons. Stock prices rose immediately.” This is not dialogue. This is notes.
Schenkkan’s point is that it is easy to imagine Trump’s America deteriorating into Nazi Germany, extermination camps and all. But he hasn’t spent enough time imagining it; the characters and the history they lay out in retrospect are generic and implausible—and also, at times, cheap. (There is a jab at the size of Trump’s hands.) The subject of Building the Wall requires more than propagandistic alarm. It’s too easy to be incendiary when what you’re burning is a straw man.
New World Stages (Off Broadway). By Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Ari Edelson. With James Badge Dale, Tamara Tunie. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through July 9.
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