Trump administrative policies, the Holocaust, and even the television show “24” reverberate through the talkative, sporadically, absorbing Off-Broadway play, Building the Wall. Playwright Robert Schenkkan, who penned the Tony Award winning All the Way, that focused on President Lyndon Johnson’s struggles to enact the 1964 Voting Rights Act, once again addresses politics in his latest endeavor.
The time is the present. The stage is a starkly furnished room-- a simple metallic table, two chairs and a water cooler--in some unnamed federal prison. There, Gloria, a History Professor (Tamara Tunie) is preparing to interview a soon-to-be executed inmate, Rick (James Badge Dale) about the catalyst for a crime that has not yet been revealed to the audience. The conversation, a back and forth, sometimes staccato-like question and answer, begins with the prisoner’s background and then encompasses his beliefs and motivations. The exchanges conclude with, what turns out to be, a horrific offense reminiscent of the atrocities of the Holocaust.
There are times when Building the Wall can be thought-provoking and provocative but, for the most part, the dialogue is stilted and too studied. The dramatic arc only becomes evident at the end of the production. At first, based on the title, the audience may think the prisoner is some evil, malevolent individual steeped in the partisan and highly charged rhetoric of the Trump administration. But as the 85 minute, intermission-less show progresses you realize this is simply a misled individual with confused morals caught up within a failed system that could have taken place anytime within the past 15-20 years. His defenseless rationale dredges up the “only following orders” mantra from the Nuremburg Trials.
Schenkkan’s approach gives the show a meandering pace. There is not a direct road map in Gloria’s line of inquiry. It’s more like a faculty member’s lecture that constantly darts off into tangential streams of thought before circling back to the main point. We also do not understand the motivation or interest in the professor’s presence. While not totally necessary, the reasoning would add a better layer to our understanding.
Tamara Tunie is matter-of-fact as the cool and detached professor. The all but emotional-less delivery serves its purpose of having her be a somewhat dispassionate observer and chronicler of Rick’s story, but it doesn’t allow for much nuance or shading to the role.
James Badge Dale, as Rick, initially, comes across as a menacing presence. But he convincingly shifts his persona through the steady outpouring of justifications and confessions to become more of a pathetic, misguided individual. His talk of shadowy government agents and rogue contractors seem credible and almost…almost evokes some degree of sympathy from the audience.
Director Ariel Edelson is moderately successful in presenting a modicum of liveliness. There is not much in, what is essentially, a question and answer format to break-up the sameness of the play’s structure. He partitions the proceedings with Rick’s frequent trips to the water cooler, but there is just so much hydration one can take. Also, the earlier half of the show’s rat-a-tat deliver and response comes across as rather forced and unnatural.
Maybe it’s too early in the Trump Presidency to develop a stage production that dramatically and effectively processes some aspects of his policies, executive orders, legislative agenda, and his erratic and uncharacteristic Presidential behavior. Building the Wall is a worthy, but flawed attempt, playing at World Stages Off-Broadway.