‘Building the Wall’ plays through July 9 at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., buildingthewallplay.com
President Donald Trump has been impeached and “exiled to Palm Beach.” Not in real life, but in Robert Schenkkan’s absorbing and unapologetically disturbing drama “Building the Wall,” the president’s fate has been determined by brutal immigration and border security policies that led the way to unimaginable disaster.
Schenkkan, whose award-winning work includes “All the Way” (Tony) and “The Kentucky Cycle” (Pulitzer), wrote the 90-minute play in October 2016 in what he calls a “white-hot fury” as the “dispiriting” election cycle was nearing its end.
Following multiple regional productions, “Building the Wall” is receiving its New York premiere Off-Broadway at the New World Stages in an intimate and tight staging directed by Ari Edelson.
Set in late 2019 in the grim and gray meeting room of an El Paso prison (designed by Antje Ellermann), an African-American historian named Gloria (Tamara Tunie, guarded and observant) has been granted an interview with Rick (James Badge Dale, suspicious but loose and energized), the incarcerated former warden of a private prison for those who entered the country illegally.
Their tense conversation paints a dystopian portrait of the United States. Following a terrorist attack in Times Square (in which two square blocks were “irradiated”), martial law was declared and people who had entered the country illegally were rounded up on an unprecedented scale, making it impossible to hold them all.
Gloria wants to understand how Rick got involved in a shocking scheme (reminiscent of Nazi Germany) to permanently dispose of the detainees. Rick, who makes himself out to be a scapegoat and victim of corporate pressure, insists that his involvement was unwilling and not driven by racism, but Gloria rebuts many of his claims of ignorance.
With dystopian thrillers now in vogue (see “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu and “1984” on Broadway), “Building the Wall” gives yet another perspective on how ordinary individuals can be swept up by history, either willingly or unwittingly.
In writing “Building the Wall” and getting it produced so quickly, Schenkkan has initiated a conversation about where the country is heading. It’s now up to the audience members to add their voices to that discussion.