A set of defined conventions characterizes the traditional Greek tragedy. It begins with The Prologue, in which one or more characters introduces the drama and explains the background of the ensuing story. The Parodos, the entry of the characters, follows The Prologue, after which the story unfolds through vignettes. The tragedy ends with The Exodus, concluding the story.
After a self-imposed exile, artist, Val Shepard, returns to New York City with the intention of picking up the life he left behind. With nowhere to go, he arrives on the doorstep of his ex-landlord and father figure, Jimmy Alfano. Jimmy is none too happy to see Val unannounced, and he lets Val know this. Annoyed with Val, but concerned over his wellbeing, Jimmy reluctantly offers him the Janitor’s closet across the hall from the studio Val abandoned when he left New York.
Cruising the Bars and Streets, Val soon learns that life on the Lower East Side has moved on without him. Looking to reconnect with the scene he visits the house of Madam Elsa Burgundy. She greets Val enthusiastically and introduces Val to Amiee. As Val and Amiee get better acquainted, they are interrupted by an argument in the hall outside their room where a man abuses a young girl. Val intercedes, and the man tells Val to move on and mind his own business. Unable to perform after his long trip, Amiee consoles him and allows him to stay for a while. She prepares a shot of heroin and asks Val if he’d like to try. He declines but asks her if he could watch while she shoots up. Before going on the nod, Amiee warns Val not to “stand on the sideline before it gets too comfortable.”
Val leaves Elsa’s house and returns to the bars of the Lower East Side, but nothing has changed, life has moved on without him.
Val begins to look for Jenna Bardi, the girlfriend he left without warning. After getting mislead by LES hustler Tommy Machine, Val has a chance meeting with Jenna, but Jenna wants nothing to do with him. Val tries explaining why he went, but Jenna tells him that it’s too late, she has moved on with her life. Val asks to see her one last time under the guise of obtaining closure. Jenna agrees to one final meeting at her new place for dinner that evening.
Upon arrival at her apartment, Jenna introduces Val to her friend Lara, and to Ian, Jenna’s new husband. (Ian looks suspiciously familiar to the man abusing the girl at Elsa’s house). Val is taken aback by the news of Jenna’s marriage. Further to add insult to injury, Val learns Ian is a successful painter and holding a show in a few months at the prestigious Turner-Prince Gallery. The same gallery where Val would have shown had he not sabotaged his career.
Val realizes he has lost Jenna, and as he is about to capitulate, Ian receives a phone call from his lover which instigates an argument between Jenna and Ian. While they argue, Val and Lara excuse themselves and leave.
Out on the street in front of Jenna's apartment, Val and Lara decide to go to a bar for a nightcap, and through their conversation, Val learns how Jenna met Ian.
Val takes a taxi back to the LES and has a philosophical discussion with the cab driver. Arriving home, Val walks into his building and hears Jimmy Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic echoing through the stairwell. On his way to the top floor, Val passes two young girls entwined in a passionate embrace and several other people in various states of conjugation and altered consciousness.
Upon reaching the top, Val finds the source of the music is his old studio. Val enters to find a Warholesque party raging at full throttle. Val joins in and asks several people, whose party is this. He’s told, no other than Jackson King. Val looks for his neighbor and host to introduce himself, but Jackson King is nowhere to around. Val brings home a beautiful woman to his room, but before the two can perform, Val passes out.
The next morning Val wakes in bed up hangover. He rolls over and is startled by an unattractive woman. It is the same woman who Val left with last night, yet her appearance has changed as Val is now sober. While getting sick in his sink, the girl dresses, and asks Val or cab fare, Val reluctantly agrees. She tells him, “at least I asked first, if I had to take it, it would have been a lot more.”
While Val assembles himself, a young man wanders into his room. The man introduces Himself as Jackson King. Val tells him that he crashed his party last night. Jackson tells him that was fine, and he should have said hello. As Val tries explaining that he couldn’t find him, Jackson cuts him off to correct Val. “It wasn’t a party,” Jackson says, it was just some friends getting together and that even Val could recognize that. Val agrees obviously.
Val takes an immediate liking to Jackson, and the two go over to Jackson’s studio where they drink and talk. Val peruses Jackson’s collection of knick-knacks finding a piece of a Chagall mosaic. Knowing Jenna is a Chagall enthusiast, Val asks Jackson if he could buy the glass from him. Jackson gives Val the collage glass without charge. Jackson has another gift for Val, the paint brushes he left behind when he abandoned his studio. Seeing them, Val feels as if he is about to cry, but his ringing phone saves him from tearing up in front of Jackson.
Val returns to his room to take the call from the last person he was expecting, Jenna.
Val is surprised by the call and asks Jenna how she got his new number. Jenna tells him, from Lara, and she’s calling to make sure Val didn’t have the wrong impression, no matter what he heard Ian is not having an affair. Jenna must cut the call short and invites Val to lunch.
The next day over lunch Jenna apologizes to Val for putting him in such an awkward position. Val begins to explain why he did what he did. Jenna tells him it doesn’t matter. All dreams begin as they end and she is fine where she ended up.
Val tries to convince Jenna to leave Ian, it is less than a year, and he is already cheating on her. Jenna tells Val, there are only twelve covers of American Artist a year, just twelve! My husband is on the cover of September. Val takes out the Chagall Glass he was about to give to Jenna and then he stops. Jenna asks what he has. Val tells her it is nothing, just a piece of glass.
After lunch, Val throws the Chagall glass into the East River.
The next morning Val visits Jackson and discovers he is a heroin addict. Jackson is a wreck, he has spilled his last dose of heroin and is begging to go into withdrawal. Jackson asks Val for a favor, to help him score. Thinking of it as an adventure Val enthusiastic agrees.
Val and Jackson go out to Alphabet City and track down a teenage dealer. Short of cash, Jackson shortchanges the dealer. Thinking they have gotten away the dealer chases after them, he catches Jackson and begins roughing him up. Thunderstruck, Val stands and watches until Jackson yells out to him to help. Val hits him in the head knocking him off balance and freeing Jackson. But instead of fleeing, Val stays and beats the boy, taking out his frustrations.
On the way home Jackson asks Val why he went along and why he helped him out like that. Val tells him, “you needed my help, and I had nothing else to do.”
Val lies in bed having nightmares with surrealistic visions of his life and images of the boy he beat the day before. He wakes up and begins to cry while he washes his face. Jenna arrives to return Val’s wallet which he left at the Pink Pony during their lunch. Jenna lectures Val, he’s not a kid anymore, and he has to begin to take his life seriously. While they speak, Jackson arrives and introduces himself.
Jenna is immediately smitten by him. Jackson invites her in for a coffee, and they spend hours taking. That evening Val calls upon Jackson who is energetically running about his studio. Jackson asks Val about Jenna and how the two of them hit it off and how he would love to see her again. Val tells him that Jenna is his ex-girlfriend who he is trying to win back. The situation creates a tension between the two friends.
Later Val calls on Lara at her shop and asks her out for a drink. While they are out Val tries to pry information out of Lara. Lara tells him that Jenna knows about Ian’s infidelities but tolerates them. Val asks Lara what you think Ian would do if Jenna would ever have an affair. Lara says with absolute certainty, Ian would kick her ass out. Thinking it would accelerate the breakup of her marriage, Val tells Jackson that he is alright with him dating Jenna.
Jackson asks Val to invite Jenna to a party he’s throwing at his studio. Val calls Jenna, and she arranges to come over the following night.
The next night a vicious thunderstorm unleashes over the LES and Jenna arrives drenched. Jenna stops off at Val’s to dry off and get herself together. While she assembles herself, Val runs over to Jackson’s studio telling him they’re running late. Excepting a full-blown party, Val is surprised to see the demur intimate setting.
When Jenna arrives, they find it is only her, Val and Jackson. Feeling the third wheel as they sit and drink Champagne, Val wanders off to visit Amiee. Val asks her for a shot of heroin. She asks him why and he tells her of the situation with Jackson and his ex-girlfriend. Amiee refuses and tells him to come back for his first hit when he’s in a better frame of mind.
As Val is about to leave, Amiee offers to sleep with him, and Val spends the night with her. The next day Val return’s home and goes up to the roof where he discovers barefoot Jenna wearing an oversized white man’s shirt. Jenna is in ecstasy, she tells Val that he was right, she should leave Ian for someone who appreciates her.
Val feels he’s made a terrible mistake. The next day Val calls on Jackson, but his studio is empty. Val walks in and begins to examine Jackson’s work. Val discovers, and Jackson admits that he’s not a painter, he’s a fraud. Val is furious with him, “I’ve taken my soul to the brink of insanity for my artwork, and you think you can put your name in the lower-left and get away with it! Val leaves with the intention of never speaking to Jackson again.
Over the next month, Val dives deep into despair. Val begins working on collages and writing love letters and poetry on the walls of his studio. He has become a social recluse, not shaving or washing for weeks. The few times he leaves his home he stops and waits outside of Jackson’s door. He begins to hallucinate strange sounds coming from behind the door, sounds of antique radio broadcast and voices in foreign languages.
Later, Val finds a spider crawling across a collage in mid-composition. Val kills the spider, hitting it with such violence he fears he may have broken his hand. Val walks across the hall and asks Jackson to take him to the emergency room. Although the two friends haven’t spoken in weeks, Jackson agrees and takes him to the hospital where they tape his sprained hand and give him a handful of painkillers. On the way home Jackson buys a bottle of Laphroaig.
Back at Jackson’s studio, as they drink and take painkillers, Jackson shows Val a photo of him as a young man with his uncle in Hong Kong. Jackson tells Val about his travels and how he became addicted. The two men spend the night talking while Jackson plays Spanish Guitar and Val sketches the view from the window of the LES with his good hand.
Suspecting his wife’s infidelity, Ian shows up at Jackson's studio with two gallery owner patrons. Ian invites Jackson out for drinks with them in hopes Jackson will implicate himself. While they are out Jackson gets sick from a dirty shot of heroin and must cut the evening short fleeing with Val’s assistance.
Not wanting to be upstaged by Ian, Jackson throws a party a few days later to show off to Ian. During the party, Jackson tells Jenna he has fallen in love with her and asks her to leave Ian. Jenna leaves the party with Ian, and without giving Jackson a definite answer.
Convinced now that his wife has been unfaithful, Ian arrives at Jackson’s studio with Ruta, his Ukrainian mistress, to confront Jackson and Jenna. Ian tells Jenna to choose between him and Jackson. She picks Ian.
The decision devastates Jackson who walks out of his studio in despair.
Val sees Jenna home, and Ruta and Ian stay behind in Jackson's studio. Ian and Ruta have one final fling, during which, Ian unintentionally shoots Ruta with an overdose of heroin leaving Jackson and Val with the corpse.
Believing he has no other option, Val and Jackson dump Ruta’s body near the East River. After they dump her body, Val takes Jackson home before paying a visit to Jenna and Ian. Jenna refuses to let Val see Ian and asks him if he has taken care of everything. Val asks her how she can be so callous when a young girl has just died. Jenna tells Val, she knows nothing about it, there was no involvement by her and Ian, and Val should just forget about it.
Val asks her, how he could ever have been in love with a woman like her. Jenna tells him, he should have never have come back to New York and should have stayed gone.
Val arrives at his home to find the police cordoning off the building with crime scene tape. Upon learning of his wife’s death, Ruta’s husband Peter tracked her down to Jackson’s studio. Thinking he was responsible for the death of his wife, Peter threw Jackson off the roof.
Val returns to Williamsburg and tracks down Ian and finds him on the street. The two men scuffle, and Val demands to know how Peter found out where Jackson lived. Ian tells Val everyone is better off with Jackson dead.
Jackson’s funeral is sparse. Apart from a few curiosity seekers, the only attendees are Jimmy, Val, and Jackson’s uncle, Jedidiah. After the funeral, they return to Jimmy’s, and the three men raise a toast, to Jackson King.
In the end, Val ascends the stairs to the floor where he supposedly lived with Jackson. He tries the door to his room, but the room is padlocked as it were in the opening scene. Val turns around and sees the door his old apartment open, and he walks in. All the splendor of Jackson’s apparent is gone. The room is bare and dilapidated. Val sits at his counter, his face is aged. Val begins to cook a shot of heroin as the screen fades to black.