By Holli Harms
BUILDING THE WALL deals with Trump’s desire to build a literal wall between Mexico and the US, as well as a figurative wall against the rest of the world. As this is an immediate political topic, there are several productions of this play being presented all around the country. This review is about the New York production.
Time: Fall, 2019. Place: A prison meeting room, El Paso Texas. Professor of History, Gloria (Tamara Tunie) has come to interview inmate Rick (James Badge Dale) for a book she is thinking of writing about him and the event that led up to his being on death row. They skirt around the crime throughout most of the beginning, holding back from mentioning its details, in part to create the “thrilling, mesmerizing, shocking” drama the play is being billed as. The production I saw at the New World Stages was none of the above, unfortunately.
Rick, a conservative who voted for Trump, is hired as the warden/supervisor of a large private prison that is under contract with the government to repatriate all of the illegal, undocumented aliens. The rounding up part of this plan goes well, but not the sending back part of it as the countries refuse to accept any deportees from the US. And so they begin to stockpile in the prison and Rick is told to, “Make it go away.”
It is here where the story becomes a blend of Holocaust and Hurricane Katrina. Smashing together those two unspeakable events into one. We should be on the edge of our seats, but somehow with this production I was comfortably sitting back waiting for the shock that never comes.
Rick was not able to speak at his trial and so now with Gloria as his guide he gets to tell his story. Gloria, a liberal and professor, knows more than she lets on and though she says she is there just to interview him, she quickly finds her way to attack mode. In this production, her attacks are pure intellect with little emotion. Rick is an average man doing his best to make a living for himself and his family and then as circumstances build he finds himself pushed to the edge of his humanity. There is opportunity for sympathy from the audience for these characters, but this presentation is too preachy, making every word so important that humanity is wasted to personal values.
As a cautionary tale of Trump’s America becoming a fascist America, this production loses it’s way. There is no fear or anger or horror or love or hate or any real emotion that makes us people. The entire production has the feel of holding back. Caution with such an engaging, tumultuous subject is understandable, you don’t want to go overboard with acting and directing when the words have so much power, but vastly holding back these emotions and making every single word, every syllable contain enormous weight of importance, dilutes the entire experience.
I went in wanting to love the play. I so admire Mr. Schenkkan’s work, but this politically “NOW” piece feels rushed and weakened by a direction taken that serves neither play nor actors.
It is theoretically a play about the an everyman being pushed to do things he would not, in normal circumstances, have ever done. In the Nuremberg Trials the Nazis were made out to be monsters, but they were men and women, raising families and living lives and that they BECAME monsters was the most alarming part of it. How humans become monsters. How does that happen? It starts when country is made more important than the individual. When nationalism becomes the law and the faith. When a leader will say, “I am everything and will take care of you and so follow me.” That is the story of this play, but some how that story was lost in this production. The story of how average humans become magnificent monsters was smothered down in ideas. And that narrative is a scary one as we are now living in a country where the President cites again and again nationalism and his power and ability to protect us and take care of us.
Do we need this caution light to shine on us? No. We got it. But if you want to be reminded of what you are fighting for, marching for, then the play will do exactly that, remind you of the facts of the fight.
Scenic design by Antje Ellermann, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, costume design by Junghyun Georgie Lee, and sound design by Bart Fasbender.
The play is produced by Jeffrey Richards, Rebecca Gold, Louise Gund, Ted Snowdon, Stephanie P. McClelland, Scott M. Delman, Barbara Freitag, Eric Falkenstein/Judy Gordon Cox & Will Trice
BUILDING THE WALL, at New World Stages (340 West 50th St) plays for a limited run through July 9, 2017.
Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.