It takes a lot to make a play with the words “race” and “riot” in the title dull. Yet with Downtown Race Riot, playwright Seth Zvi Rosenfeld has somehow accomplished that difficult feat. Yes, this gritty, 1970s-set drama, starring Chloe Sevigny and receiving its world premiere with off-Broadway’s New Group, features teenage sex complete with nudity, characters shooting up and snorting drugs, and a wild brawl that includes a stabbing and a gun going off. But the play never conjures up the sense of danger you associate with the period. Watching it is like walking through a seedy neighborhood in the middle of the night, only without the suspense.
The action occurs in the rundown Greenwich Village apartment of Mary Shannon (Sevigny) and her teenage children, Jimmy, nicknamed “Pnut” (David Levi), and Joyce (Sadie Scott). Although Mary seems to be a loving, supportive parent, her habit of sneaking into her bedroom and injecting heroin into her veins while watching her favorite soap opera doesn’t qualify her for mother of the year. She does, however, have a plan to raise her family’s fortunes. It involves exploiting Pnut’s asthma to sue the city for $1 million over the lead paint on the apartment’s walls that she intends to claim caused his condition. She even has the assistance of a lawyer, although his interest in the case is as much motivated by his desire to get into Mary’s pants as it is financial.
The play’s title refers to an actual riot that occurred in Washington Square Park in which a gang of youths randomly attacked people of color, killing one man and severely injuring another. Pnut seems to have foreknowledge of such an event, and is desperate to prevent his friend of Haitian descent, Marcel (Moise Morancy), from going anywhere near it. Marcel, for his part, is more interested in hooking up with Joyce, who despite her preference for girls, offers herself to him before she plans to leave home for good. Pnut’s other friends, the Italian-Americans Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich) and Tommy-Sick (Cristian DeMeo), on the other hand, are eagerly intending to take part in the violence.
While its premise would seem to hold the promise of tension, the play is a listless affair marked by long stretches of tediously inconsequential dialogue. Rosenfeld’s characters are never remotely interesting, and so we never come to care about them. They all come across as stereotypes — the junkie mom using her sex appeal to get what she wants; Pnut’s streetwise friends, who seem to be auditioning for John Travolta’s role in Saturday Night Fever; the sleazy lawyer (Josh Pais), a stock character right out of a Sidney Lumet film.
The playwright doesn’t display the stylistic finesse necessary to progress the action from Mary convening a “Love Circle” — in which the characters huddle together while telling each other one thing they love about them — to a brutally violent melee that threatens to spill out from the stage into the auditorium.
Speaking of which, there’s something seriously amiss about the staging by director Scott Elliott, which seems intent on sensationalism. Derek McLane’s ultra-wide set stretches from one end of the theater to the other, resulting in severely compromised sightl ines. Unless you’re lucky enough to be seated in the center section, you will be desperately craning your neck to catch the action on the far sides of the stage. Although it’s questionable that you’ll even want to, considering that Sevigny spends long stretches of the play sitting motionless on a bed, staring at a silent television.
Looking at least a decade younger than her 43 years, Sevigny is a compelling physical presence. But her wan performance reflects her stage inexperience, barely making an impression despite the venue’s intimacy. And while Pais delivers the goods in his one scene as the coke-snorting lawyer, the younger performers mostly flounder in their one-dimensional roles. They do, at least, throw themselves into the outlandish fight choreography with impressive vigor.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Christian DeMeo, David Levi, Moise Morancy, Josh Pais, Sadie Scott, Chloe Sevigny, Daniel Sovich
Playwright: Seth Zvi Rosenfeld
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Yael Lubetzky
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Presented by The New Group