The weekend marking the Trump administration’s first 100 days saw the Washington debut of a high-profile coast-to-coast resistance play, Robert Schenkkan’s gloomy, calculatingly shocking “Building the Wall.” How bad could things get? Schenkkan methodically walks us through a series of policy initiatives and plausible public catastrophes to cook up a gruesome dystopia akin to the 20th and 21st century’s cruelest atrocities.
Notoriously, theater never responds to public events this fast, so the rapidity of this coolly acted, straightforward two-character show may be the most notable thing about “Building the Wall.” Schenkkan, the Tony-winning playwright of the LBJ drama “All the Way,” wrote this dialogue during and immediately after the presidential campaign, and the D.C.-based National New Play Network quickly facilitated one of its “rolling world premieres,” with the script getting unique productions in several cities across the country.
Silver Spring’s Forum Theatre is opening the play at Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle for two weeks before transferring the show to its Silver Spring base. It’s rich to see Schenkkan’s play where Arena recently debuted Jacqueline Lawton’s “Intelligence,” which reexamined the Valerie Plame affair as a cautionary reminder of shoddy executive branch rationales and bloody consequences.
Naggingly, though, “Building the Wall” is terribly coy in telling its story. Schenkkan plays cat-and-mouse with the audience, teasing out information in mere teaspoons as a white male prisoner named Rick — some sort of marked man by governmental higher-ups — gets interviewed by Gloria, a black female historian. It’s 2019, and apparently Rick had a trial but was counseled not to speak. Gloria somehow got access and will now record the truth.
In setup and execution, this is practically an exact duplicate of a show that closed Sunday at Mosaic Theater, “A Human Being Died That Night,” an adaptation of South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s actual interviews with convicted death squad leader Eugene de Kock. Both projects feature a black woman in a business suit (on our left) interviewing a conservative white man in prisoner’s orange (on our right) convicted of racist crimes in his government’s name. Both are straight-up Q&As in a secure interview room.
A crack in Schenkkan’s “Wall” is that Rick is not as consistent a person as de Kock. As Gloria (Tracy Conyer Lee, composed and pointed) queries Rick (Eric Messner, hyper-alert), we build a database of facts. Rick enlisted after 9/11, served overseas, came home and got involved in privately run prisons. His Trump enthusiasm? Rick’s testimony is brief and moony. He describes feeling giddy at the rallies, where, as a white conservative and a Christian, he “didn’t feel shame anymore.”
So what’d he do to land in jail? It’s maddening to have to wait so long. (Knowing precisely what de Kock did hardly diminished moral fascination with the hows and whys.) Without spoiling things, picture a spiral involving a deadly Times Square terrorist attack, martial law and colossal complications trying to process mass deportations.
The final third of the show’s uninterrupted 90-minute conversation is compelling as a thought experiment. It’s anti-Trump, all right — so much for theater as a “safe and special place” — though it also wickedly and shrewdly deposes the current president from the story rather early. The words “corporation” and “factory” loom large in Rick’s description of his prison operations, with a marketplace mind-set driving many of the most unforgivable actions.
Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove’s staging is purposefully plain: It’s a talk across the table, intelligently acted. Rick’s descriptions of the scandalous prison facility are vividly rendered by Messner, who is cocky with Rick’s pro-Trump positions at first but traumatized as he recounts the worst incidents. (A little more self-knowledge from the outset would seem to be called for in the script.) Lee deftly handles the few clues Schenkkan pens about Gloria, and the gap between the characters is clear when Lee’s understated Gloria makes a reference to Sandra Bland, the black woman found hanged in a Texas jail three days after her arrest during a traffic stop, that Rick thinks is off-point.
Though the play’s sense of suspense is hoary, with Gloria saying portentous things like “That would come later” while leaving us to wonder exactly what that will turn out to be, Schenkkan does take care to build his scenario brick by brick. Yes, you think as Rick talks, that’s happened before. And that. And that. The slippery slope is firmly constructed from a long national and international public record.
The play is flawed but furious, and this ultrafast dramatic response sets a constructive precedent for writers, producers and audiences. At present, “Building the Wall” sounds far-fetched; one lesson of the first 100 days is that even presidents must operate within legal confines (something Schenkkan’s script acknowledges and then eerily runs around). Four years of frightened fantasias won’t add up to a notable creative statement, but Schenkkan’s project puts down a marker declaring that the American theater always can be — and had better be — a swift-moving imaginative and intellectual platform.
Building the Wall, by Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Michael Dove. About 90 minutes. Set, Patrick Lord; lights, Sarah Tundermann; costumes, Heather Lockard; sound design, Thomas Sowers. About 90 minutes. Through May 7 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. May 18-27 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Tickets: $18-$38. Call 301-588-8279 or visit forum-theatre.org.