Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall”: Trump’s Terrible Dystopia

James Badge Dale, Tamara Tunie in Robert Schenkkan's Building the Wall. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

If, like me, you’re expectant and braced for how irate American playwrights will depict the deleterious effects of the Trump presidency, you’ll be intrigued to learn that no matter what comes our way in the ensuing months and years, nothing is likely to be as bone-chilling as Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall.

We all remember what was to happen on Day One of a Trump administration: that oft-mentioned wall was to be built — and Mexico was to pay for it.

Well, it’s now Day 120-Plus, and there’s no wall (though there’s money for it in Trump’s just-released budget). But as promised by Schenkkan’s title, there definitely is a wall built before the blackout on his 80-minute shocker of a play.

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It could be said that Schenkkan, who won the 2014 Tony for Best Play for All the Way, has gone all the way in an entirely different direction this time. There won’t be too much in the way of details here, as the spoilers are worth avoiding.

Building the Wall takes place in an El Paso, TX, prison meeting room (Antje Ellermann’s cool design). The audience sees it as they enter the space at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, and that alone they may find provocative. (While Schenkkan was born in Chapel Hill, NC, as a University of Texas alum he remains fascinated by what transpires in the Lone Star State.)

When Tyler Micoleau’s lights go up (followed by subtle changes throughout), prison inmate Rick (James Badge Dale) faces historian Gloria (Tamara Tunie). Pulling papers from her briefcase and ready for revelations, she’s there to have him — as apparently previously promised — fill her in on what he didn’t say in court. She wants to know everything about the crime that now has him in prison orange.

Rick, his head shaved, is wary, even menacing when responding to Gloria’s ice-breaking comments. When she asks if it bothers him that she’s Black, he waves that away, claiming that he’s never been prejudiced. When she presses him on his commitment to being completely candid, he hesitates — and she packs up her briefcase to head for the thick metal door. He calls her back and from that point on is generally cooperative.

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For the rest of Schenkkan’s seemingly understated script, Rick answers Gloria’s questions and tells the story of his life — only occasionally interrupted by Gloria, either to keep him talking or to fill in a crucial part of her own story. (Would a serious scholar like Gloria reveal quite so much of her past? This is something Schenkkan doesn’t want examined. So be it.)

Confiding that he was raised by an uninterested father, Rick lists his jobs since adolescence and during the years that led to him to work for correctional institutions. Eventually, he says, he was employed by a private government facility, the Reeve County Detention Complex. There, among other inmates, illegal immigrants were, uh, detained.

Here my plot description must cease and desist — other than to note that the ominous term “taco trucks” drops into the dialogue at one disturbing point. It’s fair to report, however, that as Rick paces the secured room and no longer intimidates persistent Gloria, we realize that the interview takes place in some not-too-distant future. It’s a dystopian one, to say the least, which is how Schenkkan — reflecting widespread fear in our population — sees our America’s current domestic affairs. It’s certainly how he regards the possible outcome of this administration’s attitude towards illegal immigrants.

The playwright, who wrote Building the Wall last October, thus before the election, had stated in the press that he’s drawing on ideas contained in Gitta Sereny’s book Into That Darkness. She maintains that history isn’t necessarily shaped by the ostensibly powerful but just as often, or perhaps more often, by a single man who might otherwise be considered a very small cog in societal mechanics.

And so Schenkkan shapes Rick as such a minuscule cog, one whose actions — possibly motivated by nothing more than a need to provide for his family — can contribute to, even trigger, unmitigated evil. Gloria, who explains early on that she, too, believes in the careless-everyman-instigating-larger-events theory, is the playwright’s stand-in for Sereny.

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It doesn’t take much to understand that Schenkkan is also echoing Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem contention about the banality of evil. Schenkkan is suggesting, unquestionably, that things we have habitually insisted can never happen here, in fact, can happen here. And soon.

The thing about Building the Wall is that the drama is contained in the gathering horror story told — but not necessarily in any mounting tension between the two characters conveying the story. Indeed, there is not very much of that. The denouement makes patrons exit the theater not having observed Rick and Gloria change — they don’t. It considers what their encounter allows them to discover, to their alarm.

Under Ari Edelson’s economical direction, Dale and Tunie are perfectly fine as Rick and Gloria. He’s edgy and suspicious, cocky and remorseless about Rick’s slowly revealed crime — one that may have had him taking the fall for others. She’s dignified and urgent and, at the end, wide-eyed at the atrocities Gloria cajoles Rick to admit.

But Schenkkan’s play is a different kind of tragedy all the same — or all the way, if you prefer. Watching it, I was reminded of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery,” about a far-flung, ordinary town where stunning events take place. If Building the Wall is more like reading a story than attending a theatrical production, it’s a mighty scary tale at that. One that will only thicken the waking nightmares too many Americans are already having about life under this President.