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03/11/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

Hit The Wall: A Review

In "Hit the Wall," the violent, virulent and explosive new play by Ike Holter at New York's Barrow Street Theatre, the gay turbulence of what now seems like a Draconian era in New York after dark comes alive with a force rarely seen on a stage the size of a special delivery postage stamp. Regardless of your age, gender or persuasion, it will leave you shaken.

You're in a gay bar. It's June 27, 1969. Just another restless Friday night like all the others in New York City. At the dirty brick building at 53 Barrow Street called the Stonewall, the lost and the lonely are forming lines to shove and push and maybe rescue their lives for a few hours with vodka, beer, cocaine, anonymous sex and screaming rock and roll. Only this is the Friday night that gave the weekend blues a taste of blood. Smell the air. Do you -- did anyone -- know it was the night that was about to change the course of history? This is the life-altering night when the cops showed up as usual, raiding the place, and 350 queens, fed up with the harassment, the insults, and the police brutality turned around and beat the living crap out of New York's sadists with badges and blue uniforms. This is the night that started the Gay Liberation movement and forged a new chapter in the annals of human rights.

The cops chose the wrong time for a raid. This was the day, you see, of Judy Garland's funeral, get it? So the kettle was already on the boil, the steam was filtering through the anger, the sadness and the loss, and New York's gay populace was ready for bear. Mr. Holter's play, directed with fusion and fury by Eric Hoff, gets the details down with such immediacy that when the characters each yell "I was there!" you feel like you were, too. You get the lesbians, acting tough to hide their insecurity but desperate for affection, the black and Puerto Rican social rejects in short shorts, the confused preppie on his first trip to the Village, the Harvard graduate with his briefcase pretending to be straight, the drifter with the stash of expensive pot and the back pack, the drag queen in stiletto heels with the face of Eartha Kitt and the thigh muscles of Muhammed Ali. You get so much rage, written and shouted in the vernacular, that in the first few minutes you might have second thoughts about why you came and if you'll stay. "You mouth-breathing pimple-popping, pot-pushing no-dick hypocrites!" "You half-slit-pocket-broke-beer-bellied-cock-eyed-limp-wristed-ass-swishin'-day-drinkin'-lily-livered-fish-smelling faggots!" And that's just two of the nicer tirades.

The jive comes at you like an X-rated Faulknerian stream of consciousness, until it grows on you. You really get to know these empty souls with no money, no family, no job, and no life, looking for a party to get through the night. Always at the mercy of the cops, the Mafia ("Show me a bar not owned by the Mob and I'll show you a church"), the social reformers and the bleeding-heart liberals, these were the diverse customers of the Stonewall, dancing away their gloom and bitchy identity disorder when the police broke in, demanding IDs, smashing their faces in with night sticks, dragging their tank tops and earrings away in a paddywagon. Then all hell breaks loose onstage and you're in the middle of the tear gas, the gunshots and the riot in full swing, replete with burning trash cans, broken glass and screaming rock music, staged in a flash of strobe lights. By 3 a.m. on June 28, the cops went wild, yelling "Go to hell!" and the gays were yelling back "We are already there!" It was an onslaught of storm shields, walkie talkies, flying bodies and bleeding orifices, but the queens kept coming -- 350 of them. The tables turned and now it was the stupefied cops who were outnumbered and running for their lives. But their victims stood up for their rights, assaulting them with everything they could get their hands on like hand grenades, and after that night the laws were re-written and nothing was ever the same.

By the end of this 90-minute, intermissionless, action-packed saga, the audience was exhausted and cheering, while the extraordinarily talented and dedicated cast repeatedly chanted "Out of the closets and into the streets!" like a mantra. Everyone is so great it is hard to single out individual acts of bravura in such a well choreographed ensemble, but I was especially impressed by Nathan Lee Graham as the militant cross dresser, by Nick Bailey as the displaced all-American boy who loses his virginity and finds his identity in the same night, and by Rania Salem Manganaro as the boy-woman who takes the worst beating of the night and does not look like she's faking it. The movement, the noise, the confusion of the moment -- especially the police riot -- are well calibrated without looking choreographed, but everything is so believable that the cast inhabits the Stonewall rather than enshrining it.

Today there's a plaque outside the joint where the riots happened, in the form of a historic marker, but times have changed so radically that people just take it for granted that Greenwich Village was always a safe haven for the disenfranchised. The event has been documented in books, lectures and documentary films, but "Hit the Wall" puts you in the picture. In the final moments of this powerful and exciting play, every member of the cast says "I was there." And so are you.

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