There’s a hold-your-breath inevitability to what is finally disclosed in “Building the Wall,” the powerful dystopian drama about life in the Donald Trump era by Robert Schenkkan. You hear it in the distant, unnerving soundscape. You see it as two characters increasingly come to grips with their worst fears. Most of all, you feel it in the gut, because what the writer imagines is not so much a fanciful futurist leap but a calculated cautionary tale, taking place just two years from now.
The work is sure to provoke shock, awe and much talk as it is produced around the country. (The New York gig is a stand-alone, limited run, but another production played L.A and others are slated in a regional network across the country. More are sure to follow with the two hander’s au courant but limited shelf life.)
Schenkkan, a Pulitzer winner for “The Kentucky Cycle” and co-writer of film “Hacksaw Ridge,” last hit the boards with the Tony-winning play “All the Way,” about LBJ’s triumphs and tragedy. His latest is a hot-off-the-laptop scorcher of a play is about another presidential manipulator. If you think Vietnam was bad, get a good grip on your armrests.
In this speculative fiction, Schenkkan does not return to the subject of insider political power plays, and the current Oval Office resident only gets a few passing references. Instead the writer zeroes intimately, unsparingly and chillingly at one of this election cycle’s disenfranchised followers and takes an unblinking look at what makes him tick…tick…tick.
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In Schenkkan’s scenario, martial law is declared after a terrorist attack in Times Square. The slippery slope of authoritarianism goes downhill fast, leading to immigrant roundups, epic deportation plans and much, much worse. Rick (James Badge Dale), a supervisor in a private prison, has been arrested and convicted of actions as a result of those policies, and is now awaiting sentencing.
He is interviewed by Gloria (Tamara Tunie), an African-American history professor, who wants to know more about “the clusterf— of massive proportions” and understand the motivations for his actions. The play’s schematic structure has overly familiar elements of conversational confrontations: mutual mistrust at the beginning, revelations of personal details that surprise the other, flashes of insight that give each pause, and the feeling of helplessness following a tragic aftermath. But it’s gripping storytelling, and powerful performances trump any sense of an overworked template.
Under director Ari Edelson’s well-measured direction, Tunie is cool and focused as Gloria approaches her task with a sense of human concern mixed with professional cunning — until the facts become overwhelming. “Help me understand,” she says, but the answers aren’t easy — and may not be what she wants to hear.
“Who speaks up for us anymore?” asjs Rick about his sense of marginalization — until one candidate’s inflammatory rhetoric struck a chord. “You didn’t feel little any more, put down any more. Shame. You didn’t feel shamed anymore.”
Dale is riveting as Rick, “a regular guy in extraordinary circumstances” as he makes his best case with both conviction and scorn, clinging to the talking points until the words fail to justify the actions. Even he is stunned by the final realization — not of the collapse of institutions, morality and the Constitution, but of an America that is no longer seen as a beacon but as a blight.