By Stanford Friedman
Downtown Race Riot is not only set in 1976, much of this new play by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld feels like it was written in that era as well. It flows along with a distinct Lanford Wilson vibe: a messed up family and their friends moving through a large living space filled with odd sexual tensions, drugs and the threat of violence. A rinky-dink wall clock counts out the minutes in real time as the characters work out their assorted psychological, physical and moral issues. The first hour is a captivating slow burn, then it goes a little off the rails, then it blows up in your face.
Jimmy (David Levi) is a white, 18 year old, high school dropout living in a Greenwich Village two-bedroom with his dope fiend of a mother, Mary (Chloë Sevigny), and his tomboy sister, Joyce (Sadie Scott). His best friend is a Haitian teen named Marcel (Moise Morancy), and he is also chummy with a couple of Italian American thugs with the street names of Tommy-Sick (Cristian DeMeo) and Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich). The whole gang is sweating out the hour or so before a planned riot in Washington Square Park, where the local white boys are aiming to lay a beating down on any dark skinned minorities that cross their path. Marcel thinks he’ll be fine, he’s a neighborhood kid after all. Jimmy knows better though and much of the play involves his anguish over whether he should keep his pal safe, or bend to the will of his tribe. Meanwhile, he must also worry about Mary’s taste for the needle and Joyce’s long simmering taste for Marcel, despite her declared lesbian status.
So, there are a lot of balls in the air here and the always fine director, Scott Elliott, juggles them skillfully. He endows Mary and Jimmy’s mother and son affection with a disturbing hint of lust. He pulls our attention from one side of the stage to the other with the sound of Mary furiously slapping her arm to find a vein. He moves Marcel from Joyce’s bed to Mary’s bedside before he can barely zip up his pants. Then there is a plot turn for the worse. A lawyer (Josh Pais) shows up. He’s part of a money making scheme that Mary is hatching, but it seems he’s more of a crazy coke-head than a legit attorney. Mary throws herself at him to keep his interest and the show’s sense of realism suffers as a result. Following that, and in lieu of a gratifying climax, a knock-down drag-out fight, complete with knives and gunfire, tears the set apart and, with nowhere else for the play to go, we are left with an unsatisfying, wordless fade to black as Jimmy stares out into space.
Mr. Levi and Mr. Morancy both give strong, sympathetic performances that make their friendship and their individual dilemmas feel legit. Ms. Sevigny’s character looks in pretty great shape for a dope-sick single mother of two, but her performance is otherwise surprisingly lovable and believable right up until she goes lawyer crazy. Ms. Scott uncovers more layers and depth in Joyce than she has a right to, and Messrs. DeMeo and Sovich are so well cast that it’s hard not to experience Saturday Night Fever flashbacks whenever they take the stage. Scenic Designer Derek McLane captures the era perfectly, right down to the clock radio, bean bag chair and macramé plant hangers. When a vintage floor lamp bites the dust during the big melee, it is one of the saddest moments of the night.
Downtown Race Riot – By Seth Zvi Rosenfeld; Directed by Scott Elliott.
WITH: Cristian DeMeo (Tommy-Sick), David Levi (Jimmy “Pnut” Shannon), Moise Morancy (Marcel “Massive” Baptiste), Josh Pais (Bob Gilman), Sadie Scott (Joyce Shannon), Chloë Sevigny (Mary Shannon) and Daniel Sovich (Jay 114).
Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Yael Lubetzky, Sound Design by M.L. Dogg, Fight Direction by UnkleDave’s Fight-House; Production Stage Manager, Valerie A. Peterson. The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St. (212) 279-4200, https://www.thenewgroup.org/downtownraceriot.html. Through December 23. Running time: 100 minutes.