Playwright Robert Schenkkan (“All the Way”) has given free rein to his imagination and speculates on what could befall America as a result of the Trump administration’s war against immigrants. You can call the situation dramatized in “Building the Wall” far-fetched, but nonetheless it makes for an unsettling projection of events in this tightly presented two-hander grippingly performed by James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie.
It takes a while for the true horror to be revealed in the face-off between Dale as Rick and Tunie as Gloria. The setting is a prison meeting room in El Paso, Texas, and the time is the fall of 2019. Rick is facing possible execution and Gloria is there to elicit his verson of events for the public to learn and understand. It was not told at Rick’s trial, and he is fuming about the decision of his attorney not to put him on the stand so he could speak in his defense.
There is bantering between them before getting to the nitty gritty, a conversation that tellingly reveals Rick’s mindset. I have to say that the approximately 90 minutes of the play passed speedily as I was thoroughly riveted by the talk between Rick and Gloria as a result of the convincing acting by Dale and Tunie and the issues that the playwright puts on the table.
Rick is a nervous, restless character who epitomizes white Americans who feel themselves disenfranchised and resents immigrants illegal or legal who have supposedly taken away jobs. He has served in the army and has never had a shot at the so-called American dream, but he has found employment in the security field. He was a supporter of Trump, who we learn that by this time has been impeached, which even with what is going on today would seem to be a stretch or wishful thinking.
What playwright Schenkkan supposes goes way beyond that. The Trump administration has not only set up privately run prisons to hold the vast numbers of immigrants rounded up, but there have been mass executions of them in the manner of what the Nazis did in the Holocaust. Rick has played a role in the slaughter, and although he has regrets about having been part of the system, he excuses it by rationalizing that if he didn’t do it, someone else would have done it anyhow.
Most chilling is the portrait of an ordinary American guy who, beneath it all, is basically decent, following orders and doing things that he would not have ordinarily done. We know where we have heard of that before, and applying this to our own country is hair-raising when detailed in the conversation that takes place in this prison visiting room.
A theatergoer could protest that it couldn’t happen here, and certainly not within the next two years, but by raising the specter Schenkkan, his cast and director Ari Edelson, whose staging is admirably taut, do a service with this riveting dramatic warning that yes, it potentially could happen here if our democracy goes haywire in an atmosphere of resentment, hatred and repression. At New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed May 26, 2017.