Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: A Lot Going On Downtown

By Michael Block

Welcome to the late 1970s in Greenwich Village. Times are a bit different. And yet, from a modern perspective, there seems to be some very common themes. A new play written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, Downtown Race Riot follows the Shannon family as they attempt to make the best out of life, despite scamming each other, themselves, and, well, the government. With an impactful historical backdrop on its side, Downtown Race Riot reels back to pack a powerful punch, but it just doesn’t land.
Downtown Race Riot captures the essence of racial tension in New York City through a drama about loyalty and morality. Jimmy “Pnut” Shannon is the young son of a Mary, woman living off of disability and a bit of an addiction. Not only is she addicted to drugs, she’s addicted to mooching off of anyone she can lay her hands on, as she’s willing to utilize false pretenses to make a scam believable. Mary is eager to sue the city for lead paint poisoning by exploiting Pnut’s asthma attacks. While Pnut plays caretaker of the family, he is also urged to riot in Washington Square Park alongside his white vigilante friends and his Haitian best friend Marcel, also known as “Massive.” Unfortunately for Massive, only Pnut and his gang know the truth that he is being tragically set up in the race war. Forced to play savior, Pnut puts fate in his own young hands in hopes of doing right by all. There is a lot going on in Rosenfeld’s single act story. There is tension for sure, but Downtown Race Riot suffers from some sluggish pacing due to the lack of presence in the story. With swirling themes ranging from drug addiction, racial tension, and financial insecurity, Rosenfeld paints an outline of each without ever filling it in. True to the historical elements as well. Rosenfeld lacks context in his themes, hoping that the character studies of his thin characters are enough to carry the show. Despite being a new play, Rosenfeld is able to capture the period through his dialogue, though some of the actors make the language feel a bit artificial. His ability to write in this manner does highlight the rawness of the individuals he depicts. He shines a bright light on their imperfections and flaws.
Chloe Sevigny is the headliner of the production, but she plays second fiddle to David Levi’s Pnut. As the center of the wheel, Levi was the focus of this story. Levi’s performance was something closer to a scene study class than an Off-Broadway play. Levi seemed to be exploring the character on the fly as he tried to be rough and tough when deep down, he’s just a genuine kid. As his dope-fiend mother, Sevigny floated through the production. She encapsulated the character’s lethargic demeanor naturalistically. If you felt an uneasiness watching Mary and Pnut, you’re not alone. There is a sense of lust on the part of the pair. This is not an Oedipal arrangement, just a son doing whatever he can to take care of his mom, even if that means getting a little too close for comfort. Moise Morancy as Marcel gave one of the stronger supporting performances. Morancy showcased Marcel’s heart and desire to fit in while ignoring the sad reality of the time. Morancy’s performance was the most heartbreakingly authentic. While the rest of the ensemble were capable performers, they seemed to have been told to research stereotypes and play that.
There was certainly a lot to unpack in Downtown Race Riot and director Scott Elliott juggled every spinning plate Rosenfeld handed him. Unfortunately, many of those plates smashed to the ground. Elliott took a naturalist play and had his designers create a world to fit. His actors, though, did not. Derek McLane’s representation of a lived-in two-bedroom apartment was quite spectacular. With photos in one room and a tapestry in another, you were certain who occupied each space. The scenic elements matched the period with its warmer tones. Yael Lubetzsky kept in the natural feel of the piece through the lights, but found a way to magically transform the two bedrooms, Mary’s in particular, into a fantastical sanctuary of soothing colors. As Mary was on her trip, so were you. If ever there was doubt of the time period, Clint Ramos ensured you were reminded with the high-waisted bell bottoms and tight shirts on the gang. The most action in the play happens with a final fever pitch cumulating a giant fight at the end. While not a blood bath, enough stage blood was shed. UnkleDave’s Fight-House choreographed a dangerous montage of punches that was the most realistic moment of the entire piece.
There’s a large chunk of the play where Sevigny’s Mary sits on her bed dozing off. There were certainly many in the audience who followed suit. It’s unfortunate that Rosenfeld’s engage as much as it should have. The most explosive thing that happens is at the end, and even then it feels artificial and blown up comparatively. There is little gratifying in Downtown Race Riot. It’s likely going to be one of those plays that will get lost in time.