May 28, 2017
News reports of man’s wholesale inhumanity to man are made only slightly less horrifying by a reflexive self reassurance that it can’t happen here. Rwanda, Cambodia, Aleppo, sure. But New York? Texas? No way, right?
Not so fast, at least not according to Building the Wall, now playing on Broadway at New World Stages. Set in the not so distant future, this spare production pits a journalist and an orange jumpsuit clad inmate in a 90 minute drama that says it can and did. The inmate, Rick, is being held in solitary and he welcomes this opportunity to spend some time with another human being. The journalist, Gloria, is after the story behind the story, i.e. why’d he really do it? “It” turns out to be the thing that can’t happen here but somehow did anyway.
The cast members are James Badge Dale as Rick and Tamara Tunie as Gloria. It’s a challenging workout for these two actors given the claustrophobic confines of the spare and unchanging set and a continuous conversation that spans an hour and a half, sans intermission. They quickly and credibly get into character and remain there throughout the performance. While their dynamic begins with mutual distrust, it grows into something that resembles a tough love therapy session as Gloria steers Rick toward telling the truth.
And the truth is that Rick did something unspeakably horrible. He got caught while, according to his version, higher ups walked. There’s dialog implying that the official version paints Rick as a lone wolf and a bad apple gone rogue. As Gloria presses harder it becomes evident that Rick is no angel but neither is he the devil that the media describes. In fact, he’s a bit of an everyman. His childhood, as he describes it to Gloria, was neither storybook nor hell on earth. His accomplishments and failures in life had been generally unremarkable as well.
This seems to be precisely the point. We may delude ourselves imagining that we’d have surely recognized the rottenness of a Bernie Madoff or the psychopathy of a Tim McVeigh early on, but what if the monster is basically just some guy next door that we barely ever even noticed? Rick’s just an ordinary guy aside from this one really huge exception. The author, Robert Schenkkan, previously gave us All the Way and Hacksaw Ridge.
One leaves the theater with a diminished certainty that it can’t happen here and the nagging sense that something ought to be done to ensure that it doesn’t. The big question is, “what, exactly?” Nothing could be more urgent than answering it correctly.