BUILDING THE WALL

Donald Trump’s campaign promise to rid America of its millions upon millions of “illegal aliens” reaches extremes that would do a certain WWII dictator proud in Building The Wall, Robert Schenkkan’s ham-fisted “It darn well could happen here!” two-hander now getting the first of a series of rolling World Premieres at the usually laudable Fountain Theatre.

 The time is 2019. The place is an El Paso prison meeting room. The protagonists are reporter Gloria (Judith Moreland) and inmate Rick (Bo Foxworth), and it’s obvious from the get-go that some bad stuff has happened in the two years since Donald became Mr. President and that Rick’s imprisonment is somehow related to at least some of this bad stuff.

Judith wonders if the security cameras and two-way mirrors are for her own safety. Rick suggests that they may be for his own. “They don’t want me to kill myself so they can kill me.” Clearly, Rick has committed a capital crime, though the snail’s pace with which Judith’s interview takes place keeps the reveal of just how capital this/these crime(s) is/are a good long ways away.

Despite Gloria’s stated intention to get past “the same bullshit your lawyer gave the court,” what she ends up “learning” over the course of the next ninety minutes is for the most part nothing that’s not in the public record, only one reason why Building The Wall rarely feels real.

 Schenkkan’s own intentions quickly become clear, to give us a step-by-step description of how things started out bad and then got worse and worse and worse.

Unfortunately, it takes him till nearly halfway through to at long last disclose the event that got things really rolling downhill to hell, after which the playwright spends the next forty minutes making us wait in ever growing disbelief for the President’s final solution.

As Auschwitz and Treblinka made abundantly clear less than eighty years ago, nothing is impossible in a world where ordinary human beings can become monsters.

Still, the playwright who gave us the brilliant All The Way takes matters to such extremes that credibility is repeatedly strained, and never more so than when about eighty-five minutes in, mention is made of someone somehow having gotten a hold of a guard’s cell phone, as if throughout all the horror there was no such thing as the Internet, as if even though “money, jewelry, drugs, the usual stuff” could be smuggled in, no one ever figured out how to make it through security with a phone.

 Under Michael Michetti’s direction, Moreland and Foxworth do the best they can with what they’ve been given, and at least in the latter’s case, Rick’s guilt and shame do allow the almost unrecognizable L.A. stage star to cry real tears, but Schenkkan’s dialog (and Moreland’s largely expository lines in particular) rarely comes across as real, Gloria serving mainly to remind Rick that then this thing happened and then that thing happened, not for her interviewee’s sake but for our own edification.

Ultimately, Building The Wall ends up a whole lot of preaching to the choir, for unlike the Fountain’s superb My Mañana Comes, a play about undocumented restaurant workers that might have touched even Trump supporters’ hearts, this one has but one inflammatory purpose in mind, as if each day’s headlines didn’t already reveal what kind of man now sits in the Oval Office when he’s not off in Mar-A-Lago.

At the very least, Building The Wall looks authentic thanks to the stark, fluorescent-lit, thoroughly believable prison environment created by production designers Se Oh (set), Elizabeth Harper (lighting), Naila Aladdin Sanders (costumes), and John Nobori (original music and sound).

Building The Wall is produced by Simon Levy, Deborah Lawlor, and Stephen Sachs. Miranda Stewart is production stage manager. Scott Tuomey is technical director.

Perhaps someday someone will write a nuanced, compelling, non-polemic look at the effects of Donald Trump’s immigration policies upon the millions of undocumented immigrants striving to make better lives for themselves in this country. Building The Wall is not that play. Ninety minutes have rarely felt this long.

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The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. Through August 27. Mondays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 323 663-1525
www.FountainTheatre.com

–Steven Stanley
March 27, 2017
Photos: Ed Krieger

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