Worse than a wall

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Given our current political world, playwrights are dying to speak to an audience.

But traditionally, as a protest medium, theater is pretty slow. Especially if you're dealing with a new play, theater isn't usually topically ripped from the headlines. There's the time to write the play, submit it, an artistic director's got to choose it, then find a slot, cast it, rehearse it -- even at break-neck theater speed, you're probably looking at a year between the ink drying on the page and an audience experiencing a produced piece of theater.

Against that typical timeline, Robert Schenkkan's new play Building the Wall is all the more remarkable.

You might recognize Mr. Schenkkan's name as playwright of The Kentucky Cycle or more recently All the Way, his chronicle of LBJ and the Civil Rights Act.

As you can probably guess from the title, Building the Wall is, on the surface, a protest play against our current president's immigration policy. Written since the election and updated with little details through the rehearsal process, the play is terrifyingly topical. Even though it's set a couple years in the future, the play makes direct reference to headlines you probably read a couple weeks ago -- both travel bans are in there. This isn't theater as reflection but theater as horrified fortune teller.

Structurally, the play is taut and familiar. It's basically a two-person interrogation-room drama with the action unfolding in a single 90-minute scene. We're in a tiny white cinderblock room complete with two way mirror and surveillance camera presumably in some super-max prison. Our characters are a white convict and a black historian.

The convict's orange jumpsuit tells us it's not so much a whodunnit as a 'what horrible thing did he actually do?' The dramatic engine of the play is revelation: the unfolding of that mystery.

The setup is a touch awkward, Judith Moreland plays the historian who's there to get the record straight and understand just exactly what happened. She's trying to tease out the story that didn't come out during the trial and be our witness, history's witness. She's a necessity of the plot and that shows at moments. Don't worry, the object of her attention is more than compelling enough to carry the play.

Filling that orange jumpsuit is the actor Bo Foxworth, who's giving a truly remarkable performance. Without giving too much away he walks a fine line between being ominous and painfully insightful. This is one of those plays where telling you the plot robs it of an essential tension. Suffice it to say, his character did something unexplainable but he's doing his best to explain why it happened.

It's this last part that makes the play more than a timely gimmick. I don't think it's going out on a limb to imagine that most of the audience at the intimate Fountain Theater in predominately blue Los Angeles is against building a wall. So the play's job isn't to convince us of that. If it were, it'd be a fairly hollow enterprise. Instead the play tries to look into the mind of a not just a supporter or believer but someone who would carry these policies to a frightening conclusion. That's a dark, but essential, journey.

Don't miss this play or Mr. Foxworth's performance.

Building the Wall plays at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood through May 21.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in Building the Wall