Timothy Haskell’s production of Jake Shore’s Hit the Wall is tense and taut from its opening line and remains on that level. This short two-character play about Amir, a famous graffiti artist having a case of artist’s block, and his relationship with Rae, a younger protégé, just about to hit her stride, is engrossing and compelling. It concerns art, aesthetics and fame, as well as family problems. You may not have expected it, but graffiti artists discuss their work from the point of view of their inspiration, their satisfaction and their commitment, just like fine artists.
Rae returns home to the loft apartment she shares with the older artist, her mentor and inspiration, in midtown Manhattan, depressed about a wall she has been painting in Crown Heights but abandoned before finishing. Amir suggests that she return and finish it but Rae thinks it is too risky. On the other hand, Amir has stopped painting as he does not want to risk his anonymity and end up in prison, afraid his identity has been compromised. They discuss what it takes to create a great wall: “the right visibility, the best vantage point, the ideal setting.” To this list Amir adds another one that Rae does not understand as of yet: audience. Does the artist paint for the people who see it, one special person, influencing culture or those who will see it in the future?
When Amir finally sees Rae’s work, he thinks it is the best thing she has done. However, Rae can hear the but in his voice. He finally tells her that she has virtuosity but has not found something to say. Rae’s wall in Crown Heights goes viral and makes her famous. Amir is at first jealous and then fantasizes about hitting one last wall in Times Square which he knows is too risky with all the police around. As he worries about the audience, he begins to think he is having a nervous breakdown although Rae thinks it is just his inactivity. Although her father is dying, Rae does not want to engage with her mother due to her abusive relationship with him. Rae leaves to do something risky.
Adam Files and Alexandra Guererro make an attractive couple. While he is cool and rational as successful Amir, she is emotional and passionate as the novice hitting her stride. Their mentor/student relationship is well developed. Their chemistry is palpable throughout even when they are at loggerheads about their work. Under Haskell’s assured and understated direction, they keep the momentum going throughout the play. However, at times the play seems underdeveloped as if the two characters need more to talk about or engage in. Hit the Wall seems like a sequence from a longer as yet unwritten play. However, the dialogue is excellent and the denouement satisfying.
Paul Smithyman’s minimal setting is fine for the tiny stage and used well by the director and the actors. The limited color scheme lets us imagine the walls the artists paint. Since they are on stage throughout, Brynne Oster-Bainnson’s appropriate costume design allows them to change without leaving the stage. Most interesting is the lighting design by Yang Yu which bathes the stage in various colors at different times, creating subtle moods.
Jake Shore’s Hit the Wall, though limited in its range, is very successful in its goals. It gives Adam Files and Alexandra Guerrero juicy roles as the aging mentor and the younger student who may have surpassed the master. It also depicts a world unfamiliar to most of us. Whether this world is entirely accurate is another question which only those in the know can tell us. However, the play as it now stands is an impressive but small piece of work.
Hit the Wall (through August 11, 2022)
The Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.frigid.nyc
Running time: 65 minutes without an intermission