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Hit the Wall

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Hit the Wall
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Cognitive dissonance overcomes you early on, and with an enveloping embrace, at Hit the Wall. You're immediately aware that Ike Holter's play concerns the 1969 Stonewall riots, which unfolded just around the corner from this show's home at the Barrow Street Theatre, so you know to expect full immersion in the colorful, and ostensibly kitschy, time and place. What's tougher to predict and, as soon as Holter hits his stride, tougher to ignore, is that you're not merely being propelled into a familiar world comprising well-worn stereotypes, but rather surrounded by an imaginary culture every bit as theatrical—and original—as the real thing.

This is not to say you won't encounter gay men and women that fulfill traditional "roles." The full-throttle drag queen, the just-out virgin, the still-closeted sugar daddy, women with both butch haircuts and failed attempts, and more—they're all here. What they say and how they say it, however, defines them more than the categories they occupy. Though none of these people lives an elegant or even remotely rarefied life, each speaks a poet's precision and commitment. And as the lyricism of their speech develops, it weaves a dramatic texture that bewitches and transports you as no individual lines or naturalistically staged cops-versus-citizens fight scenes could.

Because nearly every stanza relies on rich profanity to round out its images and meter, reprinting much of it here is impossible. Nonetheless, it thrusts you into a community of shared vocabulary and experience that will not let you view the proceedings as an outsider. So when, for example, Carson (Nathan Lee Graham, laser focused), a black man who's mourning the just-passed Judy Garland by replicating her look and her fashion in every detail, gets into a verbal slap fight with Hispanic quasi-rebel Tano (Arturo Soria), their weapons are wit and psychological causticity rather than blades or blunt objects.

"Look upon me," Carson grandly bellows upon stepping foot in Tano's presence, "Behold / a true-blue bitch / through and through. Look upon one who has seen the end and cross yourselves in fear of the eternal damnation and repercussional happenstance that awaits the fate of the fakes who try to put me in my place." And, after dispensing a few more withering salvos: "Creeping like a cockroach in the night out of mind out of sight cause y'all sissies just don't look right in the light / Hell I've seen better bitches uptown at the dog pound before the city puts 'em down." Such linguistic ammunition may be devastating to the participants, but it's entertaining to us.

Devastation and entertainment swap positions later in the evening, when the police raid the Stonewall Inn and ignite a violent conflagration that spills onto the streets and into the history books. Director Eric Hoff and lighting designer Keith Parham craft a swirling nightmare that views the fiery scene as if from the depths of hell staring heavenward, with shadows, silhouettes, and the percussive impact of voices unlocking every second of horror the combatants on both sides must have experienced. A bathroom scene, in which a cop (Matthew Greer) accosts both Carson and Peg (Rania Salem Manganaro), a woman who dresses like a man but doesn't sound like one, is particularly harrowing, its wrenching uncertainty and suspense suggesting what a disembowelment feels like from the point of view of the victim.

So captivating are these individual elements of Hit the Wall that it's a shame to have to report that the rest of the play does not reach their heights. But for all the energy and care Holter and Hoff have invested in getting these people to sound like no one else when the stakes are highest, their attention has flagged elsewhere within this the 90-minute show. Lauren Helpern's Christopher Park set establishes the close-knit, occasionally claustrophobic, sense of the Village in June, but the scenes set there are sedate, almost catatonic, in their staging, never matching the bounce or urgency of the dialogue or making little use of the audience's emasculating presence.

Holter also would have benefited from populating his universe with people as unique as it is. Even if he didn't want to abandon the collection of archetypes altogether, he could have at least made them distinctive. But except for the tragic Carson, who the intensely articulate Graham imbues with pinpoint emotional nuance at every moment, the other characters want to fade into the summer heat, and their actors want to let them. Nick Bailey as the off-the-bus innocent, Ben Diskant as the pot-smoking drifter, Soria and Gregory Haney as the wise-cracking stoop-sitters, Carolyn Michelle Smith as a militant lesbian activist, and more fulfill the letter of their roles without embodying the spirit. Even the potentially juicy Peg gives Manganaro no room to soar higher than a bitter scene with the sister (a stiff Jessica Dickey) who shunned her at their home in suburbia.

If Holter's goal is, as it seems, to humanize an event and a people that have been attained an untouchable iconic status over the four decades, this is not the way to do it. Nor, for that matter, is dropping into other clich├ęs (the smoke-filled club that provides for an impromptu dance number, the attempt to install "I was there" as the show's Twitter-hashtag catchphrase in the final seconds), or using an eye-rollingly maudlin aftermath.

Why is this play, which sounds like no other, ultimately so desperate to behave like every other? That's never fully explained, so this initially invigorating work eventually becomes unsettling for its own reasons. But at least you're treated to an aurally dazzling symphony of language until Hit the Wall hits too many immovable walls of its own.

Hit the Wall
Through July 7
90 minutes with no intermission
Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue; 1 block south of Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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