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Theatre in Review: Downtown Race Riot (The New Group/Pershing Square Signature Center)

Chlöe Sevigny, David Levi. Photo: Monique Carboni

A fragile, troubled family implodes over the course of a single day in Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's new play, which succeeds as both a tense drama and a flavorful slice of Greenwich Village life in the bad old 1970s. There's a major caveat attached to Scott Elliott's production, however, which you need to be aware of if you plan on seeing it.

Compared to Rosenfeld's earlier, more intimate plays, Downtown Race Riot is a sprawling collection of plots and subplots set against the background of an ugly incident from the city's past, laying bare a complex cross-section of tribal loyalties and vicious prejudices. It's the long, hot summer of 1976, and Mary Shannon presides over her brood of two. Mary, a full-fledged bohemian from the days when the Village wasn't a high-rent district, tries her best to be an authority figure, urging her children to find their own paths in life. Trouble is, much of the time Mary is strung out, locked in her bedroom in a state of chemical bliss. Her eighteen-year-old son, Jimmy (aka "Pnut"), has become her de facto caretaker, having dropped out of high school to keep her from, among other things, falling asleep when smoking cigarettes in bed while high and killing them all. This is, of course, an untenable situation for the young man, and, to blow off steam, he has started running around with a gang that consists mostly of mobbed-up Italian teens -- all of them made men in training -- taking part in random acts of theft and vandalism.

Joyce, Mary's daughter, is fed up with living this away and has secretly obtained a passport, planning to join her friend Michelle ("the macramé chick," in Mary's appraisal) in Trieste, where they and a group of friends will take up an itinerary that includes grape-picking in France followed by stops at an Israeli kibbutz and, finally, Goa. Mary, an expert when it comes denial, replies, "You wanna be a migrant worker, for chrissakes? You wanna travel? Go to the Bahamas for a weekend. Take a load off. You don't have to join up with the goddam Manson family." At the moment, Mary, who lives on disability checks and loves a good get-rich-quick scheme, has cooked up a plan to sue the city for a million dollars; the family lives in city-owned housing, and she claims, spuriously, that Jimmy was adversely affected by eating lead paint chips as a toddler. She has hooked up, both personally and professionally, with Bob Gilman, a two-bit shyster, to press her case. The way Mary acts, you'd think the check was already in the mail.

Rosenfeld complicates this already-detailed picture with the introduction of Marcel (aka "Massive"), Jimmy's best friend. He runs with Jimmy and the Italians, which is counterintuitive, to say the least, because the gang members are racist and Marcel is black. Marcel, however, is from Haiti -- his father, once a government official, has fled from the Duvalier regime and now drives a cab -- and he felt totally alienated in Harlem, the family's first stop in New York. (He was ostracized for his accent, his clothing, and the traditional lunches his mother made for him to take to school, the last of which earned him the name "Stinking Marcel.") In the Village, he has earned his place in the gang -- or so he thinks. And, to make things more combustible, Marcel and Joyce -- a lesbian who is open to the right man -- repair to her bedroom for some afternoon delight, an act that Jimmy sees as an invasion of his personal turf.

Forcing everything to a head is the fact that, this afternoon, Jimmy, Marcel, and the others are planning a "race riot," more accurately a series of attacks on blacks and Hispanics in Washington Square. (This actually happened in 1976; 13 people were injured and one was killed. One of the assailants was black.) Marcel says, "If you're from around here, people got your back" -- but, if he's not careful, he'll end up with a knife in his. The gang plans to take him out for the offense of sleeping with the sister of a local goombah. This revelation rocks Jimmy, who, simmering over Marcel's encounter with Joyce, and struggling to keep Mary on the straight and narrow, now must attempt to save his friend's life.

Rosenfeld, a New Yorker to the bone, knows whereof he writes, and the script is filled with details of Village life in the '70s. (In a line that got a knowing laugh at the performance I attended, Mary tells Jimmy that his father, an Egyptian, worked as a chef at the Olive Tree Café, the Middle Eastern joint that has been on MacDougal Street since time immemorial. It is, by the way, only one of several stories regarding Jimmy's parentage, and, given the pale complexion and blonde hair of the actor David Levi, the most improbable.) His writing thoroughly captures the temper of the times, whether it is the defensive homophobia felt by Jimmy and his friends in the post-Stonewall era ("We walk down to the piers to play football and they're sucking each other off"); Joyce's petty acts of hostility toward Mary, including stealing her boxes of Kotex; or Bob Gilman's bizarre defense of cocaine as an organic substance that should be legalized.

Elliott's production abounds in good performances, starting with Chloë Sevigny as Mary, whose maternal style veers from direct intervention to reckless neglect. She's a handful and the actress nails her various aspects -- amusing when prodding mutual antagonists into a "love circle" or coaching Jimmy on his supposed damage from lead paint, and harrowing when, lost in a drug haze, she reveals ugly truths that Jimmy never suspected. David Levi, a musician and star of a Nickelodeon series, makes a strong impression as Jimmy, his psyche buffeted in several directions at once. There are also fine contributions from Sadie Scott, mouthy and determined to get free as Joyce, and Moise Morancy as Marcel, who lays out his case for gang membership so reasonably, you might not guess how deluded he is. Cristian DeMeo and Daniel Sovich add menace as Marcel's potential killers. Josh Pais makes the riotous most of his single appearance as Bob Gilman, an apparent milquetoast who doesn't blink at snorting coke and making out with Mary -- in front of Jimmy.

The main drawback -- and it's a pretty big one -- has to do with Derek McLane's set, depicting the Shannons' railroad flat. On its own terms, it's a marvelously detailed piece of work: a combination living room/kitchen (with bathtub) at stage center, Joyce's bedroom (its walls covered with posters for such '70s icons as Tavares, Donna Summer, James Brown, and Kool and the Gang, as well as the New York Yankees) at stage right, and Mary's bedroom (swathed in Indian-print fabrics) at stage left. Every inch of it feels authentic and true to the characters, but, in trying to evoke the flat's geography, the designer has come up with a set that is far too big for the Linney Theatre at Signature. If you're seated in the center section of the audience, you have a decent view of all three rooms. But those seated in the left and right sections -- especially in the first couple of rows -- will be forced to crane their necks constantly just to get a glimpse of what is going on. I think it's fair to say that, at the performance I attended, the level of engagement in the center (where I was seated) was much higher than in the audience left section. (I wonder if this was a factor in the largely negative press with which the show as been greeted.)

The rest of the design contributions are right on the mark, especially Clint Ramos' costumes, including Jimmy's seersucker bell bottoms, Mary's T-shirt-and-shorts combination, the cheap, ill-fitting suit worn by Bob, and the outfits for the Italian interlopers, which could have been filched from Tony Manero's closet. Yael Lubetzky's lighting is especially helpful in directing our attention on the superwide stage. M.L. Dogg's sound design includes a tasty playlist of '70s hits, including Melanie's "Brand New Key" and The Manhattans' "Kiss and Say Goodbye."

There's much more to this rich piece, including an unusually -- and unsettlingly -- effective fight scene -- staged by UnkleDave's Fight-House -- during the play's suspenseful climax. It's good to hear from Rosenfeld again, as he has been otherwise engaged in film and television -- and it's a thrill to find him writing on a new, more ambitious level. Downtown Race Riot is eminently worth seeing. Just be careful about where you sit. -- David Barbour

(4 December 2017)

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