Review of The New Group's Downtown Race Riot at Pershing Square Signature Center

  • Our critic's rating:
    December 6, 2017
    Review by:

    Downtown Race Riot is not only set in 1976, much of this new play by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld feels like it was written in that era as well. It flows along with a distinct Lanford Wilson vibe: a messed up family and their friends moving through a large living space filled with odd sexual tensions, drugs and the threat of violence. A rinky-dink wall clock counts out the minutes in real time as the characters work out their assorted psychological, physical and moral issues. The first hour is a captivating slow burn, then it goes a little off the rails, then it blows up in your face.

    Jimmy (David Levi) is a white, 18 year old, high school dropout living in a Greenwich Village two-bedroom with his dope fiend of a mother, Mary (Chloë Sevigny), and his tomboy sister, Joyce (Sadie Scott). His best friend is a Haitian teen named Marcel (Moise Morancy), and he is also chummy with a couple of Italian American thugs with the street names of Tommy-Sick (Cristian DeMeo) and Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich). The whole gang is sweating out the hour or so before a planned riot in Washington Square Park, where the local white boys are aiming to lay a beating down on any dark skinned minorities that cross their path. Marcel thinks he’ll be fine, he’s a neighborhood kid after all. Jimmy knows better though and much of the play involves his anguish over whether he should keep his pal safe, or bend to the will of his tribe. Meanwhile, he must also worry about Mary’s taste for the needle and Joyce’s long simmering taste for Marcel, despite her declared lesbian status.

    So, there are a lot of balls in the air here and the always fine director, Scott Elliott, juggles them skillfully. He endows Mary and Jimmy’s mother and son affection with a disturbing hint of lust. He pulls our attention from one side of the stage to the other with the sound of Mary furiously slapping her arm to find a vein. He moves Marcel from Joyce’s bed to Mary’s bedside before he can barely zip up his pants. Then there is a plot turn for the worse. A lawyer (Josh Pais) shows up. He’s part of a money making scheme that Mary is hatching, but it seems he’s more of a crazy coke-head than a legit attorney. Mary throws herself at him to keep his interest and the show’s sense of realism suffers as a result. Following that, and in lieu of a gratifying climax, a knock-down drag-out fight, complete with knives and gunfire, tears the set apart and, with nowhere else for the play to go, we are left with an unsatisfying, wordless fade to black as Jimmy stares out into space.

    Mr. Levi and Mr. Morancy both give strong, sympathetic performances that make their friendship and their individual dilemmas feel legit. Ms. Sevigny’s character looks in pretty great shape for a dope-sick single mother of two, but her performance is otherwise surprisingly lovable and believable right up until she goes lawyer crazy. Ms. Scott uncovers more layers and depth in Joyce than she has a right to, and Messrs. DeMeo and Sovich are so well cast that it’s hard not to experience Saturday Night Fever flashbacks whenever they take the stage. Scenic Designer Derek McLane captures the era perfectly, right down to the clock radio, bean bag chair and macramé plant hangers. When a vintage floor lamp bites the dust during the big melee, it is one of the saddest moments of the night.

    (Photo by Monique Carboni)

    What the popular press says...

    "Do not be alarmed by the title, with its promise of dangerous confrontation and energy run amok. Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s Downtown Race Riot is about as likely to raise your blood pressure as a homeopathic sleeping pill."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "The New Group’s subpar production—which includes comically on-the-nose design, unconvincing Noo Yawk accents and strangely slack staging by Scott Elliott—exacerbates the play’s flaws. Tension should mount as the onstage clock ticks down to riot time, but you’ll likely be counting the minutes until you can leave."
    Raven Snook for Time Out New York

    "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."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - Time Out - Hollywood Reporter