Only moments into Downtown Race Riot, playwright Seth Zvi Rosenfeld skillfully plunges the audience into a milieu that Republicans in the current political landscape fulminate over. An indigent mother (Chloë Sevigny), advises her son Pnut (pronounced peanut) that she has a foolproof plan to earn money, but she will need his help when her lawyer comes by shortly. “Listen to me,” she says, “I’m gonna bring up your asthma so have your inhaler ready and if you have to fake a cough, be prepared…. And you may have to act mildly retarded.” With a sluggish indifference, unless she’s animated by a new scam, Sevigny expertly inhabits her character, Mary, with her semi-glassy eyes (she’s a recovering addict, and not too far on the road to recovery to turn back decisively) and a confidence in her own craftiness.
One’s sympathy might fall to Pnut, but he is not particularly sympathetic. He appears to enjoy gay-bashing with friends outside the home. He complains that his mother has bought new jeans for his sister, Joyce, who is a lesbian, but he gets an unexpected response from mother: “You know what,” Mary tells him, “Joyce works hard, she stays out of trouble, I could give a flying fuck if she likes a twat now and again.”
For a while it appears that Rosenfeld may be venturing into pretty daring territory—a satire on the scam artists who drain government money to the detriment of “the deserving poor.” Whether their numbers are large enough to justify Republican scorn is debatable, but the subject has been ignored, dramatically speaking.
Soon, however, additional threads of plot are woven in. Pnut’s best friend, a Haitian immigrant nicknamed Massive, arrives, and Massive is trying to get Pnut to go to a demonstration in Washington Square Park (it’s 1976, and New York City is in ferment). Mary dislikes the idea because of the danger involved. But that’s what attracts Pnut: “The whole neighborhood is goin’ out there with pipes and bats and it’s open season on yans and piss-a-ricans.”
Mary: Are you demented? Did I bring you up to be a KKK member? We’re in Greenwich Village, for chrissakes. This is where people come to be free. You and your friends are a bunch of Neanderthals. You beat up the gays, rob the Jews, now this?
Pnut: See, those are two different issues. You can’t lump them together like that.
Rosenfeld has a gift for unexpected comic spin, but soon two other cronies heading to the rally arrive to make sure Pnut is going, and the play turns much darker. One visitor, Tommy, is known to Pnut, but the other, Jay 114, is new. Both are basically henchmen to an unseen Mr. Big named Baldo, and they want Pnut to ensure that Massive is going to the rally for sinister reasons that upset Pnut. But they also imply there may be repercussions to Mary, whose drug-addicted wanderings sometimes make her vulnerable, if Pnut doesn’t do what he’s told. It’s Pnut’s attempt to protect his friend and his mother and avoid going to the downtown rally that occupy Rosenfeld’s attention.
Derek McLane has designed three different rooms for the action. Joyce’s bedroom is plastered with news clippings and photographs of black men in big Afros, and has a caramel vinyl beanbag chair; the central area has an upstage foyer and a living room/kitchen combination, where the scenes with the visitors take place. The third area is Mary’s room, decorated with wall hangings and canopies of brightly colored mandalas; it screams “drug use” as much as "the Seventies!"
David Levi as Pnut has the callowness and swagger that his character requires (although the actor’s modern shoulder-blade tattoo violates the period). Moise Morancy’s Massive is both threatening and loyal. And although Cristian Demeo’s Tommy-Sick isn’t as menacing as he needs to be, Daniel Sovich as Jay 114 (Rosenfeld’s nicknames for almost every character become annoying and confusing), has radiates a thuggishness that screams “Danger!”
Scott Elliott’s direction is well-paced, and UnkleDave’s Fight-House provides a splendid free-for-all brawl, but the plot is somewhat of a free-for-all too, touching on too many subjects. Sadie Scott's Joyce hooks up with Massive seems a plot twist too many. It’s unclear what Rosenfeld’s primary message is. That drug-using parents warp their young? That aimless youth can end up working for criminals? That sexuality is fluid? That even the most narrow-minded racist can open a personal connection with a friend of another race? Or that hate groups can be a substitute for a failed family life?
In any case, what seemed to begin as a social satire veers into melodrama. Cannily, though, Rosenfeld stops short of a grim ending, as Yael Lubetsky’s slowly dying lights leave a viewer both perplexed and unsettled. Even if it’s not wholly satisfying, there is much in Rosenfeld’s play to appreciate.
The New Group production of Downtown Race Riot plays at the Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.) through Dec. 23. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 8 p.m.; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 20. For tickets and information, visit thenewgroup.org.