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It seems the current president’s native city found Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall too close to home. Despite enjoying its third extension in Los Angeles, and with opening dates scheduled in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Miami; Tucson, Arizona; Ottawa, Ontario; and elsewhere in the United States and abroad, the play’s New York production abruptly closed over the weekend, a month before its scheduled July finale at New World Stages. The news was tweeted out on Friday by Schenkkan and later confirmed to the New York Times by a producer, Jeffrey Richards. “Our author built a powerful play; however, during this Tony Awards season and during a season which has not been kind to straight plays, we were unable to build an audience,” Richards told that publication.
Set in El Paso, Texas, in a prison meeting room (bleakly designed by Antje Ellermann), Building the Wall stages an interview between Gloria (Tamara Tunie), a professor and historian of American racism, and Rick (James Badge Dale), a military vet and former manager of a detention center for undocumented immigrants. Rick sits in jail awaiting sentencing for crimes he facilitated at the center — crimes the savvy spectator may easily infer upon learning that the play is set in a dystopian 2019 where President Trump’s anti-immigrant scapegoating and taste for authoritarianism have found their cruelest expression. Rick and Gloria tensely meander through personal narratives and meaningful anecdotes about politics and race, until Rick finally describes those crimes. That delivery is punctuated by a menacing shift in the lights (designed by Tyler Micoleau) and soft, low pulses of sound (designed by Bart Fasbender), in case you weren’t sure that The Big Reveal had arrived. Once Rick’s made his confession, the play ends.
For the majority of its performance, Building the Wall feels less like a drama than the fever dream of a horrified citizen who has absorbed too much campaign coverage and too many post-election opinion pieces about the rise of U.S. fascism. Gloria and Rick sound like mouthpieces for familiar stereotypes of blue and red America, though the actors do their best to emerge from behind their characters’ talking points. Tunie portrays the steely confidence of a successful woman in academe who’s nonetheless affected afresh by the story she’s come to hear. Dale is more mannered, peppering his monologues with dance-like gestures whose vitality belies the confinement suggested by his character’s orange jumpsuit. As though worried that the audience will abandon ship if the characters just sit and talk, Ari Edelson directs mostly with an eye for excuses to get Gloria to stand or sit (to prove that she’s in charge, or to maintain control of her emotions), while leaving Rick to squirm around the stage.
Thankfully, Schenkkan is not just any horrified citizen, and the searing dramatic intelligence that once earned him a Pulitzer (for The Kentucky Cycle) reasserts itself by play’s end. The story Rick ultimately shares is harrowing in its believability, the simple and logical progression of its events. Even more gut-punching is Rick’s complex moral relationship to his deeds. In Rick, Schenkkan has conjured an American Eichmann, caught in a whirlwind of events, driven by loyalty to his co-workers and fear of losing his job — less an ideologue than a nobody who can’t resist being courted by powerful men. Once Dale is allowed to be in full storyteller mode, he inhabits the part with a forceful commitment that carries the character to the brink of his own self-shattering.
It is not so much in its dramatic qualities as in its vision of a possible future that Building the Wall demands to be heard. If the play’s first hour is a somewhat stilted excuse for its final thirty minutes, these latter turn out to offer an artfully sketched warning in the shape of a genuine theatrical nightmare. Despite its flaws, Schenkkan’s unapologetic expression of political horror is likely to seem refreshing once the inevitable spate of “relevant” plays about the “issues” of the 2016 election appears in the next five years or so. Let us hope that, by then, the play itself does not seem prescient too.