Chloë Sevigny and David Levi in ‘Downtown Race Riot.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
In March 1979, the New York Times reported that six of nine young men had been found guilty, three of manslaughter and three of lesser charges, for their actions during a September 1976 rampage through Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village; one man was killed and 13 others injured. The attackers were accused of seeking to rid the park of blacks and Hispanics, even though one of the attackers was himself black.
The lead-up to the “riot,” which lasted only about 10 minutes, is the fiery background against which Seth Zvi Rosenfeld sets Downtown Race Riot, a stumbling, hour and 40-minute, domestic drama about a morally confused Greenwich Village family.
Rosenfeld, who changes the names of the three participants he dramatizes, is principally concerned with the conflicting reactions to the event of a fourth young man, Jimmy “Pnut” Shannon (David Levi), a baby-faced 18-year-old in tank top undershirt and bell bottom jeans. Jimmy’s no shrinking violet from violence or criminality (he steals from Jewish kids and makes annoying prank calls) but—concerned that innocent people might get hurt—he resists being drawn into the plot and wants to stop it.
Jimmy’s the son of a whorish, strung-out heroin addict, Mary (Chloë Sevigny), and the brother of Joyce (Sadie Scott), a 21-year-old whom Jimmy insists is a “bulldagger” but who spends much of the play having intercourse with Marcel (Moise Morancy), Jimmy’s black friend.
Marcel, because he believes his Haitian descent makes him a target of local blacks, insists on taking part in the riot, regardless of Jimmy’s attempt to convince him otherwise; he even dons a red headband to identify himself to the other attackers. (He also wears—thanks to costumer Clint Ramos—the kind of now-fashionable torn jeans that seem anachronistic for 1976.)
The other troublemakers are two 18-year-old Italian-Americans, Tommy-Sick (Christian DeMeo) and Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich), their tight polyester shirts and bell-bottoms suggesting Saturday Night Fever John Travolta clones more than street toughs on a bloody mission.
The audience at the Linney Courtyard Theatre sits on three sides around Derek McClane’s expansive, naturalistically detailed set of the Shannons’ shabby Section 8 flat; it’s smartly lit by Yael Lubetzky, and aurally characterized by M.L. Dogg’s sound design (listen for Mary’s favorite, Janis Joplin). A kitchen-living room (ratty, claw-footed bathtub included) is at center; Joyce’s poster-and-photo- decorated bedroom, at our left; and Mary’s tacky, shawl-and-fabric-adorned room on the right. Scenes move from room to room, forcing the other visible actors to remain barely active when their space is darkened.
Scott Elliott’s staging aspires to throat-clutching authenticity, including a rather ferocious fight staged by UnkleDave’s Fight-House. Elliott’s direction is generally effective, but he really needs to fix a scene where a bunch of actors cluster upstage in such awkward confusion it looks like they made up the blocking by themselves.
Most of the action revolves around the personal issues of the Shannons, especially those of the chain-smoking, heroin-shooting Mary. Much as she tries to be a loving, if selfish, single mother—she even holds a hippie “love circle” for Jimmy and his friends—Mary is a conniver. In a clumsily irrelevant subplot, she seeks to defraud the city by claiming that Jimmy is suffering from having eaten lead-based paint chips.
When Bob Gilman (Josh Pais), Mary’s attorney friend, arrives to get the story, he’s totally hopped up on coke (which he insists is non-addictive). This sets up an almost farcical scene that seems seriously uncomfortable as, with Jimmy inches away, Mary and Bob snort coke, followed by Mary climbing on top of Bob to make out. At this point, the play’s already faltering focus and credibility go up the nose with all that powder.
Sevigny, very slim in her short shorts or macramé top and mini-skirt, makes a highly credible Mary. Levi grows on you as a tough-talking, New York street kid, though Morancy is less convincing; DeMeo and Sovich do well enough as stereotypical junior Mafioso wannabes; Scott (who has to bare her top) is spunkily assertive as the sexually uncertain Joyce; and Pais, despite a role that feels out of place, is quite good as the comically jittery lawyer.
For all its attempts at veracity, Downtown Race Riot has an ersatz quality that fails to make these people and their problems real. The riot itself comes off as merely a trigger for a drama of family dysfunction; too many distractions create disunity, including Sadie’s sexuality, the lawyer and the lawsuit, Jimmy’s prank calls, and Mary’s addiction. Dialogue that too often sounds above the pay grade of its speakers also punctures plausibility.
Without Chloë Sevigny, Downtown Race Riot would be easy to miss. Even with her, the same holds true. Mary may like to call her problems “conundrums, ” but there’s no conundrum here.
Downtown Race Riot
The Pershing Square Signature Center/Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St, NYC
Through December 23, 2017
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).