The not-so-distant past roars out of the blue in Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s “Downtown Race Riot,” a New Group production directed by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square.
The play feasts upon the New York of the 1970s, with the sketchy menu of that decade fully evoked. But we never venture outside, or to the glittery enclaves of art, disco or rock so often used to portray the era.
We are instead confined to a single apartment, and that is more than enough. The city surges in and out the door, and through the darkened ramble of the Shannon household. The accuracy of the set design by Derek McLane is enough to make you think museum installation or documentary. We expect the pipes to start clanking.
With its cramped bedrooms, faded throws and corny owl wall-handing, its peculiar layout and sorry macramé, the set crystallizes the architecture of the moment, right down to the tacky sheen around the dials of the radio set up on top of the fridge. I expected the voices of Allison Steele or Roscoe to come out of that high-impact plastic, or Phil Rizzuto narrating Bill White between pitches in the Yankees broadcast.
The provocative title of this play refers to a 1976 incident in Washington Square Park. We are never told if the Shannons live on Sullivan, Horatio or Waverly, but the turbulent street life of the Village is streaming by, and catching the play’s needy characters in a river of petty crime, violence and drugs.
They say the child is father to the man. Here, the child is father to the mother, and she needs it. Chloe Sevigny plays Mary, mom of Jimmy (David Levi) and Joyce (Sadie Scott), and a cycle of dysfunction and despair is engrained in all three. Marcel Baptiste (Moise Morancy), Jimmy’s pal and a regular in this confining hangout, is the catalyst for both Jimmy and Joyce, and for the turmoil beyond the stoop.
Mary has a scheme to strike it rich — a lead paint scam, with her child as a pawn. Her drug habit is the immediate challenge, however, as her kids are on to her, but only so far.
Sevigny droops and cajoles with a persistent ratty fixation, all in tune with the gritty confines of her character. As her son, Levi has to carry the burden of managing her frailty on top of his obligations to both friends and street.
And Joyce has her own troubles — role models for a start. Into the apartment come three outsiders, Christian DeMeo and Daniel Sovich as a pair of young toughs, solid in that Noo Yawk school of menace.
Clint Ramos’s costumes are perfect for these junior wiseguys.
Bob Gilman (Josh Pais) walks in from another world entirely, the city housing authority, and then the desperate sway of the characters turns bizarre.
The acting is uneven, ships in the night, which does reflect the writing, down its trails of blame and selfish immediacy. There’s a lot to like, but not necessarily the characters themselves.