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A CurtainUp Review
Building The Wall

Every time he opened his mouth, he lied.— Gloria

I don't see it that way. I mean, OK, yeah, he lied, but all politicians lie, right? I get that. So part of that was him doing what he had to do but he was also telling a lot of hard truth, too. Knocking both parties, not just Democrats, for their bullshit about NAFTA, and Iraq, and NATO. — Rick
Tamara Tunie & James Badge Dale.
Plays provoking discussions about troublesome politically linked issues are not new to the theater. But rarely have plays so relevant to monumental changes in this country's economy and governance been so necessary.

Plenty of playwrights will (and should) continue to use the theater as a platform on which to explore why so many working class Americans bought into a celebrity billionaire's promise to "make America great again." While it's too late to change what happened in November 2016, it's not too late to better understand the resentment and despair that made anyone who was likely to oust or discombobulate members of both parties the right choice for the country's most powerful job — and for such plays to inspire ways to contain further draconian assaults on this country's democratic values.

Lynn Nottage's Sweat gave theatergoers an up close and personal look at a group of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania — a town hit hard by downsized or completely gone jobs. Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew dramatized a similar situation, this time focusing on a group of Detroit based African-Americans working for one of the many factories supplying parts to the Big Three.

Now comes Building The Wall by Robert Schenkkan, the author of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning epic The Kentucky Cycle and the 2014 Tony Award winning All the Way . Unlike the previously mentioned, more slowly developed plays, this impassioned response to what Mr. Schenkkan sees as a presidency that could all too easily turn into dictatorship was written in just seven days. The two character format and single, uncomplicated set was intended to make quick, call-to-action productions possible.

Of course, there's just so much that even a skilled scribe like Schenkkan can do in such a short time within this format. But this set-up serves his purpose effectively enough. Entje Ellermann's prison interview room is not much different from countless similar sets we've seen in TV and movie crime dramas. All it needs is two good actors to play the man being interviewed and his interviewer. And Tamara Tunie and James Badge Dale who play Rick, the man in the orange jump suit, and Gloria, a history teacher who's there to record and understand his story, certainly fit the bill.

Since the setting remains unchanged throughout the 90 minutes, we have just the ominous lighting and sound provided Tyler Micoleau and Bart Fasbender to give us a sense of being witness to a story set in a not too distant dystopian future. That future is just two years beyond the present, but during this administration that could cover a decade's worth of chaos.

It's always shocking to be reminded of the atrocities committed by "good Germans" during the Hitler-led Nazi reign of terror between 1938 and 1945. Except for a few, if any, most audience members will instantly see the obvious parallel between what could happen here and what did happen in Germany. Thus for most who saw the California production, and now see the one at New World Stages, nothing really comes as a big surprise. What we have is a classic case of preaching to the choir.

Given the tell-not-show structure, much of the play relies on Gloria and Rick to exchange enough background information to establish sufficient trust for the interview to begin and head towards the tense futuristic scenario.

The traumatic part of Rick's revelation involves the aftermath of a Times Square terrorist attack with the magnitude of 9/11 that allows the President to give free reign to his worst instincts. Marshal Law is declared and subsequent events quickly reveal how easily average Americans can become stand-ins for the "good Germans" who closed their eyes and even participated in the Holocaust's mass murders.

The play's title aptly capsulizes Mr. Schenkkan's theme, to show up that wall Mr.Trump promised to build along the Mexican border as a hollow metaphor. Trump's followers saw that wall as a panacea to end their anger at being pushed out of the middle class by jobs sent out of the country and too many illegal immigrants coming in. But as Building the Wall makes clear, no bricks and mortar will be needed if a strongman led government continues to make America a place to which no one will want to come, legitimately or otherwise.

This big theme is realized quite successfully with this small scale production. However, despite Ari Edelson's steady direction and the Class A performances, it's too obvious that the initial "will he be honest with her" and "will she stay" business is a device to put forth a few background clues before heading into more chilling territory.

To conclude, bravo to Mr. Schenkkan for managing to produce a coherent play even while the events that prompted him to write it continue to change every minute. Most likely he will be doing something less shoot-from-the-hip style at a future date.

In the meantime, a stage version of George Orwell's 1984 novel, long been regarded as the definitive take on a not so brave new world, has just begun a Broadway run at the Hudson Theater. And Orwell's book, as well as Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004) and Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, (1935) are once again selling well.

And comes July, provocateur Michael Moore will further test the possibilities of a play's ability to take down as itting president with The Terms of Surrender, at the Belasco Theater. This one is likely to change from day to day and get audiences to make use of Moores Trump-dumping action-plan.

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Building The Wall by Robert Schenkkan
Directed By Ari Edelson
Cast: Tamara Tunie & James Badge Dale
Set: Antje Ellermann
Costumes Junghyun Georgia Lee
Lighting: Tyler Micoleau
Original music and sound: Bart Fasbender
Hair and wig design: Cookie Jordan
Stage Manager: Chris De Camillis
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission
New World Stages 340 West 50th St. 212-239-6200.
From 5/12/17; opening 5/24/17 ; closing 7/09/17--closing early 5/04/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/22 press preview

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