Film and television star Chloë Sevigny returns to the New York stage as Mary Shannon, a heroin-addicted free-wheeling single mother of two living in section eight housing on welfare in the East Village in the bad old days. While she is either smoking or nodding out most of the time, the central character is her 18-year-old high school dropout son Jimmy, called “Pnut” (pronounced Peanut) who knows about the planned riot pitting white locals against the Hispanics and Blacks who also then frequented the park. An asthmatic who is already into petty robbery and crank phone calls, he doesn’t want to go to the riot for two reasons: he fears for the innocent bystanders who will get hurt and he also fears for Marcel Baptiste known as “Massive,” his Haitian best friend, who may be injured by the rioters for dating the sister of the local Italian crime boss.
Throw into the mix Pnut’s sister Joyce, at 21 a tomboy who identifies as a lesbian and plans on leaving her mother’s apartment for other places very soon. Mary is also planning a scam against the city dealing with the lead paint chips that Pnut might have ingested as a child. She awaits a new lawyer friend, Bob Gilman, who has offered to help her but has his own agenda. When Pnut’s acquaintances Tommy-Sick, who has already served time, and Jay 114, an admired graffiti artist, show up to escort him and Massive to the riot, things get complicated.
Although Massive is black, as a French foreigner he has not been accepted by the Harlem community and hangs out with the white teenagers. Pnut wants to protect him but Massive desperately wants to be accepted as part of the neighborhood community. He is also desired by Joyce who is still exploring her sexuality. Using colorful street language, Rosenfeld has all of these events swirling around the Shannon apartment simultaneously. It is a good deal to keep straight particularly since Derek McLane’s set has its three rooms side by side so that one part of the audience or the other finds itself too far from the action. Like the setting, director Scott Elliott’s staging is extremely realistic leading up to an unmotivated bloody fight between the characters but he is unable to keep the characters from seeming stereotypical.
In this atmosphere, Sevigny’s Mary is believable though her reiterated claim that her children come first is patently not true as she is always awaiting a chance for her next fix, nor does the author give her any self-knowledge. The four young men (David Levi, Moise Morancy, Cristian DeMeo and Daniel Sovich) seem like castoffs from such teen-driven works as West Side Story, Saturday Night Fever, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Lords of Flatbush, etc. Both Levi and Morancy have charm to spare, while Levi’s Pnut is nearly hysterical much of the time and Morancy’s Massive is too laid back. DeMeo and Sovich play would-be wiseguys without being able to offer anything new to the type. Sadie Scott as the conflicted Joyce is rather an enigma, while Josh Pais as the lawyer almost steals the show with his brief scene as a cocaine-addicted attorney who is more interested in getting into Mary’s pants.
Aside from the sightline problem with the new seating arrangement in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, McLane’s three room setting is so realistic and period perfect (avocado kitchen appliances, bathtub in the kitchen) as to suggest a movie location. The costumes by Clint Ramos bring back the days of bell-bottom pants and tight shirts. M.L. Dogg’s sound design is prominent in a play that has the radio and the television on a good deal of the time. (Janis Joplin is Marys’ favorite singer.) Most effective is Yael Lubetzky’s lighting design which bathes Mary and Joyce’s bedrooms in colored lights, creating an otherworldly environment. The fight choreography created by UnkleDave’s Fight-House is impressive in the play’s final moments.
Rosenfeld’s biographical data reveal that he grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx at the time of the Washington Square riot and that he was into graffiti at that age has held him in good stead. However, Downtown Race Riot has so many themes and subplots that its characters seem to be brimming over with insurmountable problems. The issues are still real even today, but the melodrama and the lack of humor lowers the play’s chances for being taken seriously.
Downtown Race Riot (through December 23, 2017)
The New Group
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission