Off-Broadway Review: “Downtown Race Riot” at the New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “Downtown Race Riot” at The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre (Through Saturday December 23, 2017)
By Seth Zvi Rosenfeld
Directed by Scott Elliott
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

The 1970s was a decade of unrest across the United States. Racial divides were exacerbated by socio-economic disparities and rising tensions between members of minority communities and the systemic racism inherent in the majority white population. This unrest was particularly evident in urban areas like New York City and, more specifically, in the West Village of Manhattan. One such riot erupted in Washington Square Park in 1976 which resulted in several young men being charged with taking part in a rampage that left one man dead and thirteen persons injured. Eerily reminiscent of that riot is Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s “Downtown Race Riot” currently running at The New Group’s performance space at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The overwrought and overlong drama focuses on a group of friends who gather at Jimmy Shannon’s (David Levi) Section Eight railroad apartment where he lives with his drug addicted mother Mary (Chloe Sevigny) and his sister Joyce (Sadie Scott), the feisty lesbian who is not averse to seducing his friend Marcel “Massive” Baptiste (Moise Morancy) while Tommy-Sick (Cristian Demeo) and Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich) rehearse the hit placed on Marcel by the cuckolded Baldo. This pair of losers (think the most stereotypical characters from “Saturday Night Fever” and any iteration of “The Godfather”) expect Jimmy (AKA “Pnut”) to deliver Marcel into Baldo’s hands in the Park amidst the most recent riot.

The real riot here, however, is the hot mess of misfits that gather as an embattled brood under the protective wings of mother Mary the opioid queen. Although one immediately understands the connection between the riot without and the riot within, Mr. Rosenfeld’s script is not strong enough to support that rhetorical argument. The play lacks logos, pathos, and ethos and is completely devoid of catharsis. It is difficult to care about any of the characters or their hackneyed conflicts that drive drab, uninteresting plot lines.

The play is replete with bizarre vein-tapping, love circles, and the anecdote about “a white man and an Indian” Mary shares with Jimmy’s friend Marcel between intravenous injections of heroine. There is an excessive amount of shouting, furniture throwing and kicking, exploding blood capsules and the completely extraneous appearance of Mary’s “attorney” Bob Gilman (Josh Pais) whom she met at Olive Garden. The “make-out” session between Mary and Bob while Marcel’s life hangs in the balance must be among the most embarrassing in Off-Broadway history.

Under Scott Elliott’s direction, the talented cast struggles to make sense of Mr. Rosenfeld’s script. Derek McLane’s expansive set sprawls across the entire length of the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre leaving patrons who are not sitting dead-center craning their necks to see the action in one or both bedrooms. Clint Ramos’s costumes and Yael Lubetzky’s lighting – as adequate as they are – fail to raise the level of the production beyond the mediocre.

Failing to address any meaningful discussion about systemic racism or any significant conversation about the 1970s race riots, “Downtown Race Riot” remains a puzzling foray into the realm of the absurd.