Review: ‘Building the Wall’ at New World Stages

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Out of his imaginative mind comes another powerful theatre piece by Robert Shenkkan, author of 15 plays including two dealing with LBJ (All the Way and The Great Society.) This time, he proposes what might lie ahead for us if Mr. Trump prevails in his goal of deporting all illegal immigrants. Building the Wall is set in the fall of 2019 in a meeting room in an El Paso, Texas prison. No wall of brick and mortar has been built, but those immigrants found to be here illegally have been rounded up in various prisons and are being held for deportation, or so they have been told. It is Mr. Shenkkan’s contention that what’s been developing is an American version of authoritarianism which trashes traditional American values. Mr. Shenkkan is frightened and angry and his play asks us to stop denying the truth as he sees it. He tells us that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

He has placed two people in a room who will spend 90 minutes together, one explaining how a strong leader can create a crisis which he believes only he can resolve. After a terrorist attack in Times Square, the imposition of martial law increased Homeland Security arrests, which led to great expansion in the private prison system. Rick, the ex-prison administrator – now an inmate, is being interviewed by a writer, Gloria, who cannot understand how he could have allowed the detention center to become a death camp. Denial and fear had turned Rick into a prisoner who had worked through his guilt and his instinctive decency to watch his facility change from one designed as a holding site for those scheduled for deportation. Health issues were ignored, illness among the detainees was rampant, and, ultimately, Rick and others like him followed orders that led to the liquidation of the prison population.

Tamara Tunie in Building the Wall. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

As played at fever pitch by a remarkable James Badge Dale, and as questioned by the formidable reporter played by Tamara Tunie, the play is fiercely committed to calling us to arms, imploring us to do something to prevent the extermination of thousands of immigrants whose home countries have rejected them. It’s the author’s contention that it will not take long; he calls it “the chilling speed at which fascistic tendencies can overtake ordinary Americans.”

Ari Edelson is clearly a director who is attracted to the dark themes that are contained in such plays as The Scariest, Vengeance, The Attic, Blood Wedding, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, all of which he’s directed. He’s been nominated several times for the Outer Critics Award, the Helen Hayes Award, the Lucille Lortel, and Emmy Awards. He is aided by a low-key ominous melodic strain and a windowless room designed by Antje Ellermann. Claustrophobics are warned to steer clear.

James Badge Dale in Building the Wall. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Mr. Edelson is certain to receive nominations for his work on this current offering; it’s relentlessly gripping. It is particularly timely as our Mr. Trump is presently on a 10-day tour of the world, making an effort to convince our allies abroad that we are on the right path, even though there is great dissent on the home front. We are all invested in the years immediately ahead, and Mr. Shenkkan, Mr. Dale, and Ms. Tunie have given us one more possible and frightening glimpse of them – that is, if the melting ice in Antarctica doesn’t get us all first.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Building the Wall plays through July 9, 2017 at New World Stages – 340 West 50th Street, in New York, NY. For tickets, call Telecharge at (800)447-7400, or purchase them online.

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