"Hit the Wall"

Clumsy writing, flat characters make this Off Broadway tribute to Stonewall a drag

Hit the Wall,” Ike Holter’s docudrama about the 1969 Stonewall Riots, originally came out of the Garage, Steppenwolf’s workshop venue in Chicago. As staged at the Barrow Street Theater, itself a Greenwich Village landmark just down the block from the now-historic site of the Stonewall Inn, the show becomes a commemorative event. It’s almost beside the point that the writing is clumsy, the performances are spotty and the characters are stock figures. As a ceremonial experience, the show invites the faithful to celebrate and share in a quasi-religious communal coming-out ritual.

The narrative conceit is that the ten characters in this ensemble piece were all present on the blistering hot night of June 27, 1969, when a skirmish between the police and the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the West Village, turned into full-scale riots that lasted for days and ultimately led to a powerful political movement.

“I was there” becomes the rallying cry of the ten strangers who range across the gay social spectrum and whose lives intersect in a dark alley outside the club. More stereotypes than individuals, they include the closeted rich snob, the curious virgin, the flamboyant sissy boy, the stately drag queen, and the brutal cop who symbolizes all the brutal cops of this unkind era who hassled, insulted, and on occasion beat any gay person they caught at what were criminal acts at the time.

The interactive scenes that draw these people into each other’s lives are no more than rough sketches, overwritten and broadly played. In this context, a bit of professionalism goes a long way. Gregory Haney and Arturo Soria bring style to the two flaming clowns they play, and Nathan Lee Graham imparts a great deal of dignity on Carson, the proud drag queen who finds the courage to go out in broad daylight to pay her respects to Judy Garland, who died on June 22.

The punishing public beating that Carson receives from the play’s generic bad cop is the catalyst that causes a scuffle in the alley of a gay bar to erupt into the full-scale riot that changed the political landscape.

In terms of production, that eruption also frees helmer Eric Hoff from wrestling with those stiff two-hander scenes and lets him stage the riot as a quasi-ballet. Best played by thesps like Graham and Haney, who seem to know their way around a dance floor, these stylized battles benefit from Keith Parham’s lighting design and especially by J. David Brimmer’s fight direction. The three-piece Stonewall Band (a buncha hippies, in David Hyman’s unkindly apt period costumes) is a real asset.

Hit the Wall

Barrow Street Theater; 180 seats; $75 top

A presentation by Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, and Tom Wirtshafter, with Patrick Daly, Burnt Umber, Roger E. Kass, Barlor Productions, Starry Night Entertainment, Christian Chadd Taylor, Skandal Theatrical, Marc & Lisa Biales, of a play in one act by Ike Holter. Directed by Eric Hoff.

Set, Lauren Helpern; costumes, David Hyman; lighting, Keith Parham; sound, Daniel Kluger & Brandon Wolcott; original music & music supervision, Dan Lipton; fight direction, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Bethany Russell. Opened March 10, 2012. Reviewed March 8. Running time: ONE HOUR, 30 MIN. 

With Nick Bailey, Jessica Dickey, Ben Diskant, Nathan Lee Graham, Matthew Greer, Gregory Haney, Sean Allan Krill, Rania Salem Manganaro, Carolyn Michelle Smith, Arturo Soria.

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