It’s 2019 and historian Gloria (Tamara Tunie) interviews Rick (James Badge Dale), a prisoner who is waiting to hear if he’s received the death penalty. Rick was an administrator whose private prison became a death camp after Trump declared martial law and began rounding up undocumented immigrants. Much of the play is a familiar back-and-forth, with Rick offering conservative justifications for his actions and Gloria responding with the relevant liberal talking point. Immigrants are terrorists? Actually, most terrorists are citizens or in the country legally. Career politicians are liars? Well, Trump’s lying is practically pathological. And so on.
Now, I already have Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, and MSNBC if I want my opinions confirmed. I don’t really need the theater for that. And this one of the problems with Building the Wall, the first major play about the 2016 elections, which Robert Schenkkan wrote in one week during a “white hot fury” last October. It is ostensibly about a man who is seduced by Trump but really makes no attempts to understand him; in fact, it perpetuates the ignorance of white, working-class resentment that allowed all of us to underestimate Trump in the first place. Mr. Schenkkan sprinkles his text with crowd-pleasing moments—did I notice the actors pausing for applause here?—from Gloria’s stock progressive lines to smug comments about hand size and “bad hombres.” This cumulative effect is masturbatory rather than revolutionary. It feels like watching an op-ed.
Furthermore, Mr. Schenkkan feels the inexplicable need to pad the evidence to make his case. Trump is heinous enough without the echoes of Auschwitz and Adolf Eichmann. Does he really need to commit crimes against humanity for us to realize that his presidency is founded on nationalism, racism, and Islamophobia?
It’s a shame, too, since both Ms. Tunie and Mr. Dale do a fine job with the parts they have been given. Ms. Tunie begins the play calm and objective before becoming emotionally overwhelmed with the material before her, a problem we all face as we try to understand the Trump phenomenon. Meanwhile, Mr. Dale acts as her manic foil, constantly shuffling his feet and swaying from side to side, like a boxer trying to exhaust his opponent’s offense.
Granted, The Normal Heart is no Angels in America, and any Trump play written so early was bound to be shackled by myopia. Still, there is something about the confidence of Building the Wall that is particularly offensive. In the past year and a half, Trump has belied all our political predictions. What makes Mr. Schenkkan so sure that his rather tired prophecies are any different?