Review: Sleepwalking Through the ’70s in ‘Downtown Race Riot’

Yet Mr. Rosenfeld has infused this vintage sensibility with almost no sense of present-tense urgency. As the play counts down to the violent event of its title, a rampage in Washington Square Park in 1976, the action seems to be occurring at a hazy remove, as if it were operating according to sense memory, or conditioned reflex.

Photo

From left, foreground, David Levi (on the floor), Moise Morancy (in headband) and Cristian DeMeo in “Downtown Race Riot.”

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

You could argue that this interpretation is, in some ways, suitable. It might be said to reflect the state of mind of Mary Shannon (Ms. Sevigny, in costumes by Clint Ramos that remind us of how unflattering ’70s fashions were, even to the tall and beautiful). Mary is the distracted, doped-up mother who presides over a two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village (convincingly evoked by the designer Derek McLane).

Mary, who survives largely on disability payments, makes the obligatory maternal noises — of affection, censure, solicitude — to her children, 21-year-old Joyce (Sadie Scott) and 18-year-old Jimmy (David Levi), whom everyone calls Pnut (pronounced Peanut). But you can tell her mind is usually on other subjects, like when she’ll be able to shoot up again.

Ms. Sevigny exudes an air of defensive detachment, which seems to tally with what other people say about Mary. But it’s not always easy to tell how much her affectless mien is an acting choice and how much it comes from being infected by the somnolent rhythms of a leaden script.

In any case, the plot’s true center is Pnut, a vulnerable, socially challenged kid given to outbursts of rage. Mr. Levi does sweet better than tough, but it’s a likable and credible performance. Pnut’s best friend is Marcel Baptiste (Moise Morancy), a transplanted black Haitian who has taught himself to blend in with the street-smart white kids he hangs with.

Marcel (called Massive) wants Pnut to join their friends, who are planning to riot that afternoon, to purge Washington Square of the Hispanic and black people who gather there. But Massive — who just wants to be one of the gang — is less fully accepted than he thinks he is by the neighborhood gang, which includes the Italian-American Tommy-Sick (Cristian DeMeo) and the graffiti king Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich, amusingly channeling early John Travolta).

There…

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