Chloë Sevigny is a child of the East Village. As a teenage neighborhood icon, girls would pass her on St. Marks Place and ask where she got her shoes. She was a model, a trend-setter, and, eventually, an actress. Her screen work ranges from her breakout role in Kids (which documented the East Village street culture in which she and her friends thrived) to the unsimulated oral sex scene in The Brown Bunny (William Morris dropped her as a client and many thought her career was over) to polygamist sister-wife Nicolette Grant on the HBO series Big Love. She was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000 for Boys Don’t Cry. She continues to work and is a fascinating and reliable talent. Her choices are distinctive and surprising; she acts to the beat of her own drum.
Sadly, the drum has lost the rhythm in Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s Downtown Race Riot. Sevigny plays Mary Shannon, mother of two and lover of drugs, in 1976 Greenwich Village. Her young adult children, Jimmy “Pnut” (David Levi) and Joyce (Sadie Scott), share the Section 8 apartment. While Mary spends a lot of the play in her bedroom watching All My Children, Jimmy and his Haitian best friend, Marcel “Massive” Baptiste (Moise Morancy), struggle with their obligation to join the titular riot in Washington Square Park. Matters are complicated for the boys when some gang-affiliated friends reveal to Jimmy that a mobster plans to murder Marcel under cover of the riot. It then becomes Jimmy’s responsibility to keep Marcel from joining the fray.
Jimmy is the play’s protagonist, not Mary, as the marketing would have you believe. Sevigny’s subplot involves a scam to gain money from the government by claiming Jimmy ingested lead paint chips, but the character has very little connection to the main plot. Mary is merely the idea of a drug-addicted mother with no dimension or variation. She makes no decisions that alter the play and her children only glancingly remember that she’s there while dealing with their own dramas. If cast with an actress other than Sevigny or someone of her stature, the role would fade almost completely into a tacked-on tertiary character. It’s unclear what drew Sevigny to this part, but she makes the most of what she’s given, including a monologue about how Janis Joplin was misunderstood that immediately feels like something we’ve heard before.
The central plot, that of Jimmy attempting to rescue Marcel from his impending murder, is mired in another secondary plot in which Marcel sleeps with Joyce, despite Joyce’s being established as a butch lesbian in the beginning of the play. Joyce, like Mary, is an underdeveloped character; her only goals are to get out of the house and have sex with Marcel before she does. In addition to her homosexuality, this sexual relationship is also fraught because Joyce fetishizes Marcel for being black. But then, so does her brother. In a “love circle” early in the play, Jimmy tells his mother she needs to see what a big dick Marcel has. Later, Jimmy tells Marcel he can have sex with his sister or his mother, whichever he chooses. Women and people of color are reduced to objects by both the characters and the playwright. Joyce’s lesbianism is unimportant when there’s a big, black penis in the picture. Mary, at no point, shows interest in Marcel’s genitalia, but she is offered it twice by her son. The play hinges on Jimmy, a white man, attempting to save his black friend against his friend’s wishes and without considering that Marcel may be able to help himself.
Derek McLane’s set stretches almost the entire length of the Linney Courtyard Theatre. Before the play, the stranger next to me remarked, “This set is bigger than most people’s apartments.” Aside from the size, it is too well-appointed to pass for Section 8 housing or the home of a drug addict who gets lost in the street. It’s not unlike a sitcom apartment. Clint Ramos’ costumes look fresh from a Google image search. Graphic tees of the period abound. The clothes do work to establish two tertiary characters: Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich) who is described as fastidious and dressed the same, and Bob Gilman (Josh Pais), a lawyer, where small tears around the seams of his coat tip off that he might not be a legitimate advocate.
Rosenfeld’s play has a provocative title but does not plumb any of the words – downtown or race or riot – for the true heft of their meaning or connotations. It is set in Greenwich Village, but nothing in the play relies on that or uses that milieu for its benefit. The riot is to occur in Washington Square Park, but does not happen until after the play concludes. The racial politics are wound up in a white savior story and the only thing we learn about the sole character of color is that he doesn’t like other black people. Coupling this with the secondary plots regarding Mary and Joyce noted above, the result is a muddled play confused about the story it wants to tell.
Downtown Race Riot runs to December 23. More production info can be found here.