Chloë Sevigny plays a sexy-hippie drug addict like a pro in Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s unfocused new play, “Downtown Race Riot.” But she also gracefully shows us the better side of her character, Mary Shannon, the devoted but unstable mother of two grown children getting ready to fly the family nest. In this case, the nest happens to be a two-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment in 1976, a scruffy period when rents were cheap and so was life.
In this Off Broadway production by the New Group, Derek McLane defines the schizophrenic character of that era in his realistic set. There’s a snug bedroom draped in colorful fabrics where Mary can shoot up and disappear into TV soap operas; a girly bedroom plastered with photos and magazine illustrations for 21-year-old Joyce (Sadie Scott, making an impressive Off Broadway debut); and a sofa in the combo kitchen-living room for 18-year-old Jimmy (David Levi, a terrific find), a high school dropout who’s much too smart to waste his life hanging out with the tough Italian-American gang kids in this tough neighborhood.
Jimmy’s best friend – and a far better role model for a kid who hasn’t quite grown into his own skin – is 18-year-old Marcel (“Massive”) Baptiste (Moise Morancy, very smooth and very cool), a “massive” but good-natured Haitian-American kid with artistic talent. A couple of young Italian-American thugs named Tommy-Sick (over-played by Cristian DeMeo) and Jay 114 (ditto for Daniel Sovich) represent the neighborhood “bad boys” who seem to be drawing Jimmy into their wicked ways.
At issue is the Village race riot being organized by the bad boys to beat up black kids like Massive who think that New York’s ’70s race wars don’t apply to them because they come from the neighborhood. Massive never does learn that he’s been targeted by his own supposed friends. But Jimmy is in on the ugly scheme, torn between loyalty to his friend and love for his druggie mother, who will lose her neighborhood protection if Jimmy doesn’t give up his friend.
Jimmy’s agonizing no-win choices are reflected in Levi’s sensitive performance. Jimmy is the incontestable center of the story, but Rosenfeld can’t seem to focus his attention on a central character — and director Scott Elliott can’t seem to do anything about that.
The real distraction, of course, is Mary. She’s a complicated character – a druggie, a loser and a con artist, but despite it all, a loving, caring mother –and Sevigny scrupulously observes every nuance of her volatile personality. Mary is such a compelling character, in fact, that Rosenfeld is forced to confine her to her room and have her shoot up and nod off in order to concentrate on the other players in his muddled story.
It’s worth noting that Sevigny has been appearing onstage with The New Group since 1998, when she made her theater debut in “Hazelwood Junior High.” Almost 20 years later, she’s doing what cranky theater critics are always nagging movie stars to do – give something back to the theater. Good for her.