The Barrow Street Theatre is so close to the Stonewall Inn, where gay Americans famously fought back in 1969, you could carry over your Stella to the theater without the beer losing any of its bubbles. One wishes one could say the same of "Hit the Wall," the breakout Chicago hit of 2012 that catapulted a little Chicago company called The Inconvenience to the forefront of the off-Loop scene and now has arrived for its New York moment, right in the heart of Greenwich Village.
In Chicago, "Hit the Wall" was an event, an exciting, not-quite-definable performance hybrid that fused music, performance poetry, partying and matters dramatic. Its charms pivoted around several axes: the raw energy of youngsters trying to grasp what Stonewall meant to someone not even born in 1969 and implicitly admitting their own ignorance; the rich stew of language and passion found in Ike Holter's rule-breaking script; the moral authority of several of the original performances, all emerging from ensemble commitment.
In New York, "Hit the Wall" has been turned into a traditional play, afflicting the edifice with cracks and fissures. The rock band that played in the Steppenwolf Garage and that functioned as a kind of musical bridge between eras is now represented by a little group of hippy-dippy street musicians — who might well be like those that hung out in Christopher Park in the hot summer of 1969, but whose literal presence tends to get in the way of the necessary abstraction. The set, which did not exist in Chicago, feels like a smaller, downtown version of "In the Heights," which is not the right tone.
The performances (only Arturo Soria and Rania Salem Manganaro went to New York with the show) have broadened and stiffened only a little, but enough that some of the agonizing personal confrontations now traffic in archetype and lose much of their truth. The actors feel less connected. And the director, Eric Hoff, who first conceived this staging with such passion, struggles to fuse the free-flowing energy of Holter's writing with the needs of a less abstract environment. The show now lacks spatial and transitional logic because it has set itself up as a world in which those things must matter. In other words, it now feels trapped in something it cannot quite be.
"Hit the Wall" Gotham is by no means a total disappointment. It remains a crucial showcase for Holter, a poetic young writer who has penned some astonishing sequences, monologues that spill from these characters' mouths with a potent combination of anger, humor and zest. A few of the cuts and changes in the text are improvements. Some additions to the cast, including Sean Allan Krill, Nathan Lee Graham and Gregory Haney, have their moments, although Graham, who plays the drag queen Carson, sometimes shouts when silence would work better. Manganaro, who plays a woman who prefers to dress as a man and whose performance comes with huge emotional force, surely will command attention.
Given the remarkable rapidity of the change in the level of support for gay marriage and gay rights in general in America, this impassioned piece is still a potent reminder of just how bad things were as recently as 1969.
Wherever you sit at the Barrow Street, you can see and feel that easily forgotten truth sinking into the audience members around you, whether it's a question of pulling out a memory or understanding for the first time that those who now sit in positions of cultural or political leadership might have found themselves dragged off to jail or humiliated in public.
Especially in this location, "Hit the Wall" is a reminder that Stonewall, mentioned by President Barack Obama in his inaugural address in January in the same alliterative sentence as Selma and Seneca Falls, still has not been represented in the definitive movie, book or history. "Hit the Wall" is a stab in the right direction. But it has to be true to itself.
"Hit the Wall" plays off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street, New York. For tickets or more information, call 212-868-4444 or visit the barrowstreettheatre.com.