Stonewall. It’s a titanic enough firebrand in the history of gay liberation that President Barack Obama mentioned it just weeks ago in his second inaugural address. This was the first time a U.S. President ever referenced homosexuals, or their rights as Americans, in such a speech…and it took nearly 44 years after the Stonewall riots for this to happen. Otherwise, the event has been chronicled in books, on film and in the theatre for decades. But, I’m a bit ashamed to admit, the off-Broadway play “Hit the Wall”—which opened at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village just this past Sunday—is my initial encounter with the historic 1969 happening as a structured mass-media concoction. Has the show succeeded in at least some respect because it has lit my curiosity enough to now seek out a documentary or dissertation on the subject? I guess the answer is yes. But that doesn’t mean that “Hit the Wall”(a big hit when it premiered last year in Chicago at the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre)doesn’t have its share of misfires—because it certainly does. It’s not enough to take the show down completely, but there is definitely a level of disappointment. At first I believed there was an issue with pacing, and indeed there is a certain urgency missing during the play’s tumultuous second half(“Hit the Wall” is performed without an intermission during its scant 90 minute run-time). But I’m also inclined to think that the venue was wrong for this particular piece. I reviewed the Barrow Street Theatre’s production of “Tribes” on this blog in the fall of 2012, and noted how the intimacy of the 199 seat, sort-of “in-the-round” black-box space perfectly complimented that production. The slightly reconfigured confines for this engagement, however, mostly works against it. There is an attempt to bring the audience “into” the staging via a soap-box style opening greeting from cast member Carolyn Michelle Smith as Roberta—a black lesbian militant handing out pamphlets to us paying customers—and a wandering hippie trio of musicians(that plopped down on a staircase inches from me at one juncture as I sat one step up from the stage area in the upwards raked audience seating). But I fear that this type of play needs to be experienced in a more traditional setting. The fight choreography was largely unconvincing from my focal point, for instance, and a late-play smoke effect was distracting and unnecessary. And the highly acclaimed live-band element got lost somewhere on a platform a short space above my head—on an outcropping that I may have been able to view…if sitting on the other side of the theater. That seems inexcusable in such a small space, although logistically it must have been unavoidable. The energy would be palpable if the musicians were closer to the attendance. Also, as funny as the performances of Arturo Soria as Tano and Gregory Haney as Mika are, they seem way too contemporary in the stylings of their various street-talk outbursts and put-downs for 1969. They are a hoot though.
We’re told that gay icon Judy Garland has died when the play begins, which sets an expected tone of dread from the get-go. And Carson(a commanding Nathan Lee Graham), a drag queen wishing to pay his respects to “The Wizard of Oz” star, after her remains are brought to Manhattan and thousands gather. But Carson, a man dressed regally as a woman, all in black, with lace gloves and high heels, is in great fear of the beating he may endure if caught by the “wrong people”(angry, gay-bashing heterosexuals, of course). So, immediately we are made aware that New York City was certainly not always the safe haven for its homosexual inhabitants—even in Greenwich Village. Over the course of the next 30 minutes or so we meet people like Newbie(Nick Bailey), a college-age suburbs kid attempting to finally come out of the closet. There’s also Peg(a wonderful Rania Salem Manganaro), a butch lesbian in a dungaree jacket and jeans with short-cropped hair and taped back breasts—looking for love in what she thinks will be the right place. And there’s A-Gay(a fine Sean Allan Krill), a closeted gay urban professional who periodically peruses the streets around the Stonewall Inn, looking for young men to take home with him for the night. The collection of people we are introduced to are obviously stereotypical composites. They are meant to represent the hidden and downtrodden of the Village scene at the time, and the actors define them beautifully(and flamboyantly)in the introduction slot that each is given. The tension begins to build as we approach the play’s second half, and prejudicial ugliness rears its head through two characters in particular. There’s Madeline(a dowdy Jessica Dickey), a woman infuriated by the increasingly overt reality of gay life in the city(we later find out she’s Peg’s sister). And actor Matthew Greer excels with the difficult task of being the only cast member utilized to represent the eventually violent police presence that descended upon the Stonewall when things “got out of hand”. He handles his stereotype admirably and deftly. When things finally do explode at Stonewall, it all falls on Greer’s able shoulders—he may have the toughest job in the cast.
It becomes a mantra during “Hit the Wall” that “no one really knows the truth” about the happenings inside the Stonewall Inn that night. What we do know is that the police raided Stonewall one hot summer 1969 night, and a spontaneous riot soon broke out. Furious drag queens, lesbians and gay youth all fought back after reports of inappropriate frisking and unnecessary arrests. It escalated to the point where the gay crowd began to overtake the police—inside the Stonewall and throughout the surrounding streets. This continued the next night and the following evenings beyond that. “Enough was enough” was the fuel of the outrage…and many later claimed that this is when gay pride was born. Playwright Ike Holter was courageously ambitious in attempting to encapsulate this uprising with a cast of about a dozen on the limited playing field of a stage. One or two garbage cans are thrown during “Hit the Wall”, there is some conservative blood and violence and even some brief full-frontal nudity. The effort is made to bring the electricity felt on Christopher Street that late June to a space that seats under 200 hundred—a few hundred yards from the original location of the Stonewall. Holter is partially successful. But this ain’t Chicago—it’s New York. And I’m not sure if a barely passing grade will cut it. I admired the set design utilizing a “Stonewall” sign above some lighted windows and a door representing the Inn. And the various steps up to audience seating being used to double as West Village stoops. But the direction of Eric Hoff needs quite a bit more kick. There is a certain level of tension created—but not enough. Maybe more breaking of the fourth wall would’ve helped. Certainly a more traditional stage would be a plus. I fully expected to be knocked out by “Hit the Wall” after reading about its reception in Chicago when it opened last year. But in New York I can only muster a split decision verdict. This show rates a 6