Robert Schenkkan wrote Building the Wall, his new play about our country's near future, in one week…and it shows. Schenkkan (All the Way) has argued in interviews that this rush was necessary to create a rapid response to the presidency of Donald Trump, but we leave New World Stages (where the play is making its off-Broadway debut) reminded of the old adage that haste makes waste. Rather than helping us better understand and resist the Trump administration, Building the Wall merely reinforces what we already know while pausing to rehash old fights.
The play takes place in a prison meeting room circa 2019. We know the year thanks to a projection above the stage, but it may have been a more dramatically exciting choice to tease that fact out with the rest of the considerable exposition. The story entirely unfolds in the form of an interview between inmate Rick (James Badge Dale) and Professor Gloria (Tamara Tunie), meaning that the most important plot points are relayed to us rather than taking place onstage, somewhat negating the dramatic form.
We hear how Rick joined the army after 9/11 and parlayed his service into a career in the private prison industry. We also hear about the mass incarceration of illegal immigrants ordered by the president following a terrorist attack on New York City, a roundup that relied heavily on cooperation with private prisons. Rick tells us how aggressive cost-cutting led to dire human consequences and his transition from jailer to jailed. It's a lot of tell, with very little to show. You may find your mind wandering from this somewhat dull staged conversation.
That's not to say that this form always amounts to a sleep aid. In its construction and design, Building the Wall looks an awful lot like Nicholas Wright's A Human Being Died That Night, about imprisoned South African policeman Eugene de Kock. Crackling with suppressed rage, that play gets to the heart of who really benefited from South Africa's unjust apartheid system: the well-to-do whites who maintained their lives of genteel luxury while shifting all the blame to one working-class policeman. Sadly, Building the Wall only scratches the surface of this class dynamic, offering few insights about why Rick would become one of Trump's willing executioners.
Despite that, Dale does a fine job coloring Schenkkan's sketch of a Texan good old boy. He is particularly convincing when explaining what makes Trump so attractive to guys like him: He makes the big men look small. The relish in his voice is enough to make us nostalgic for the sound of Jeb Bush's stutter or the sight of Marco Rubio's cold sweat.
Tunie is also believably human as Gloria, an impressive feat considering her character is mostly there to ask leading questions and occasionally slap Rick in the face with evidence of his ignorance. When Rick talks about feeling like his army mission was accomplished when Saddam Hussein was captured, she interjects, "Iraq of course had nothing to do with 9/11." As Gloria challenges Rick with this inconvenient truth, Schenkkan confronts us with an even more depressing one: We will be having the same circular political debates in this country until the day we die.
Director Ari Edelson attempts to activate this talky drama by having Dale restlessly pace around the room or perform exercises against the upstage wall. Rather than creating a thrillingly physical production, this forced blocking betrays a lack of confidence in the script's ability to hold our attention. It is also occasionally baffling: We're not sure why Rick invites Gloria downstage to share a secret, presumably while staring straight at a concrete wall. The prison guards behind the tinted windows can still see and hear them.
Scenic designer Antje Ellermann evocatively fashions this prison meeting room, complete with sterile metal furniture and tall fences above the wall. Tyler Micoleau's stealthy lighting rises and falls with the moment, using LEDs to subtly tint the stage.
The most dramatically active element is Bart Fasbender's disquieting sound design. Notes of tension and a mechanical whoosh creep under the scene in a way that is almost completely unnoticeable. These noises slowly ratchet up until we fool ourselves into believing they were always there, which is a pretty effective metaphor for how to introduce tyranny into a society and make it stick.
Unfortunately, the script offers no similarly illuminating insights. Building the Wall is less a latter-day It Can't Happen Here (Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel and play about the hypothetical rise of fascism in the United States) than a C-minus stab at dystopian fiction from a politically engaged playwright still burning with anger and confusion. The wisdom will come once the rage subsides, but that will take some time — especially when there's always some fresh outrage coming from the White House.