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Downtown Race Riot

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 3, 2017

Moise Morancy and David Levi
Photo by Monique Carboni

If you are going to push the envelope in theater, you really ought to make sure there is enough inside that envelope that makes it worth pushing. Unfortunately, The New Group's production of Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's Downtown Race Riot at the Pershing Square Signature Center fails to make its case, and even the presence of indie film star Chloƫ Sevigny (Oscar nominee for "Boys Don't Cry") does little to help.

Based on an actual event, the play hones in on the hours leading up to a deliberately planned violent mob action in Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park in 1976 that targeted blacks and Hispanics. One man died, another lost the sight in one eye, and many more were injured. So, the underlying impetus for the play is potentially explosive. Yet, despite the subject matter, the play fails to build in much tension or suspense, except perhaps in the anxious mind of its 18-year-old protagonist Jimmy "PNut" Shannon (David Levi), who is being pressured into joining the fight against the "yans and piss-a-ricans" in a display of white solidarity.

The playwright, who was a teenager when the riot occurred, draws on his recollections of the racial tensions of the time to paint a portrait of a young man at a crossroads: Will he join the mob, and can he prevent his best friend from going? But what unfolds is more of a sketch than a fully-realized dramatic work, and it is nearly lost in the plot threads that take us, maze-like, into too many starts and stops that lead nowhere.

There's PNut's mother (Ms. Sevigny), a flower child and an addict who spends most of her time in her bedroom, shooting up and watching "All My Children" on TV. There's his closest friend, Marcel "Massive" Baptiste, a Haitian immigrant (though there is nothing "Haitian" in his portrayal by actor Moise Morancy), who naively believes he can safely participate in the mob action as a defender of the community against what he sees as interlopers. There is PNut's sister Joyce (Sadie Scott), who we are led to believe is a lesbian but who spends most of the play in bed with Massive. Rounding out the cast are three others: Cristian DeMeo and Daniel Sovich as a couple of neighborhood toughs, and Josh Pais as a sleezy attorney whom PNut's mother brings in to represent her in a scam involving alleged lead paint in their Section 8 apartment.

To judge by these thinly woven plot threads, it would seem to be Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's ambition to capture an entire era within this play, a goal that might be better served in the form of a novel, along the lines of Jonathan Lethem's Brooklyn-centered Fortress of Solitude, a coming-of-age work to which Downtown Race Riot shares a vaguely passing resemblance. But the writing here is a mile wide and an inch deep, and nothing is developed adequately enough to hold our interest. It's all just a series of snapshots.

The production is not helped much by Derek McLane's realistically-rendered set design, which sprawls across the length of the Signature's Linney Theatre like an actual railroad flat (bedroom, living room, kitchen, bedroom), so that unless you are sitting smack dab in the center, you will spend the evening twisting and craning your neck in order to see what's going on. Scott Elliott, The New Group's artistic director, appears to have taken an altogether hands-off approach here. Maybe it all was meant to make it come off as "edgy" or "naturalistic," but if that's the case, it was not a very good idea.

Downtown Race Riot
Through December 23
The Pershing Square Signature Center Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral