Playwright Seth Zvi Rosenfeld and The New Group capture the bad old days of 1970s New York City with colorful chaos in Downtown Race Riot. Directed smartly by Scott Elliott, Chloë Sevigny plays a junkie materfamilias getting by on welfare (remember welfare?) and disability benefits. Mary lives with her two more-or-less grown children in a one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen, that classic signifier of NYC’s pre-war downtown apartments.
Sevigny’s Mary is a ragged delight, a fallen hippie still blown away by Janis Joplin, calling for “love circles” around the kitchen table, then retiring to her room to shoot up. But centering the all-around excellent cast – the core muscle of this rollicking tale of tough guys and moral dilemmas – is David Levi as her son Jimmy, nicknamed “Pnut.” Levi makes an appealingly rich character of this teenage high-school dropout, supposedly slow of wit, an asthmatic with a fighter’s build, palling around with small-time neighborhood gangsters.
Jimmy is painstakingly loyal to his best friend Marcel, nicknamed “Massive.” Epitomizing the playwright’s sensitivity to the complexities of ethnic identity and conflict, Massive is a Haitian immigrant who explains to Jimmy’s half-sister Joyce (Sadie Scott) that having been ostracized by Harlem’s longtime African-American residents, he feels much more welcome among the white kids of the Village. And that’s the crux of the story. Massive believes he’s “neighborhood,” thoroughly accepted. But as a racially charged riot looms in Washington Square Park, with the Italian-Americans itching to beat up and, they hope, force out newcomers of other ethnicities, Massive’s fate may rest in the hands of his best friend Jimmy, who is torn between personal loyalty and his own need to be accepted.
Speckled with local references that past and present Greenwich Village denizens will get – the Olive Tree, Our Lady of Pompeii, the late lamented St. Vincent’s Hospital – the script evokes the time and place, aided by Derek McLane’s intricate and quite large set, crowded with detail, and Clint Ramos’s period-perfect costumes. Sentiment(ality) gets a little out of hand now and then – Mary’s heart-to-heart with Massive, for example, while emotionally effective in itself, feels a little too honest to be true amid the contextual realism. Yet these indulgences tweaked my attention only a little; Rosenfeld’s language sweeps us along. We teeter down its consistently sharp and jagged edge as the tension slowly builds.
The cast has plenty of fun with the play’s humor too. Josh Pais is deliriously funny as a randy middle-aged lawyer whom Mary tries to engage in a scheme to sue the city. Cristian DeMeo turns young family friend and neighborhood caricature Tommy-Sick into a penetrating young tough. Newcomer Daniel Sovich is deadpan-hilarious as graffiti artist and Godfather-in-training Jay 114. And Mary is lovable, maddening, and funny despite herself; even when she’s alone in her darkened bedroom off to the side while the action is all in the living room, I kept glancing over at her to see what she was doing, how far she might have descended into her consuming dependency. Meanwhile Scott convinces as daughter Joyce, ready to strike out on her own and escape the futility of her family’s loving dysfunction.
Most affecting of all, Jimmy’s relationship with his mother is a thing of troubled beauty – frustrating, loving, too close, complex, painfully real. When she speaks of “my conundrum, mine alone” we can understand it to mean her addiction. But it seems Mary means something bigger and more universal as well. Her “conundrum” is everyone’s: how to find a place in the world. It can’t really be in your own backyard, especially not in a community of ramshackle apartments where a backyard is just a dream anyway.
For Joyce the solution is to say a big erotic goodbye and push off toward the most distant lands she can imagine. For Jimmy, asserting his power to calm the chaos around him in the most shocking way he can serves as a temporary answer at least. But for deluded Massive, answers seem unlikely. And Mary just seems to be hopelessly circling the drain.
Fashions may have changed and drugs become even more deadly since the time of Downtown Race Riot. But with all its humor, the play bears a troubling message for today: Friendship and family, potent forces though they are, can’t solve the conundrum of tribalism.
Downtown Race Riot plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center until Dec. 23. For tickets visit The New Group online.