Nilaja Sun’s latest solo-performance, Pike St., calls back to her upbringing in the Lower East Side to invoke a rich cast of characters, but is held back by a design choice and brief duration.
Sun embodies a diverse cast, from a senile Holocaust survivor to a Yemeni shopkeeper. The play focuses on a Puerto Rican and black family in advance of a hurricane bearing down on New York City. Sun’s characters are often comedic, but fortunately rise above racial caricature thanks to her insightful writing and empathic performance.
Sun is best known for her Obie award-winning solo piece No Child… and her experience shows. Her energy is undeniable, flashing between different characters like a strobe light. Their distinct physicalities are immediately identifiable and hold steady, even as the characters run the emotional gamut, dance, or even just take a deep breath and relax.
That being said, endowment is seriously lacking. With only a chair reserved for the family’s disabled daughter and two bookshelves full of candles, all other set pieces and props are mimed. Matches appear from thin air, a joint is smoked from the lit end, and the Yemeni shopkeeper’s counter grows 2.5 feet taller over the course of his scene.
Sun’s high energy is impressive, but comes with a short duration, which does the show’s plot an injustice.
The nucleus of the family is Evelyn’s care for her daughter Candi, whose health declined to point of using a dialysis machine and a respirator to stay alive, requiring round-the-clock care, and struggling to interact whatsoever with her mother.
Evelyn’s ne’er-do-well father isn’t much help, but serves to remind Evelyn of the faith-healing mother who passed away, either of untreated stage 4 cancer or a broken heart due to her husband’s philandering, depending on who you ask and when.
Evelyn’s war hero brother Manny arrives just in time to help the family prepare for the storm, but brings a storm of his own, between his PTSD and unresolved issues here on Pike St.
closes April 23, 2017
Details and tickets
Surprisingly little time is given to allow Evelyn to grow as a character, besides a moment of debatable magic realism that lacks discernable commitment throughout the show. Manny has far more range, but Pike St. only has time to briefly explore his PTSD, his celebrity, his paranoid racism, his lost love, his pain over seeing his mother’s shop replaced… Each would be an enticing subject for a deeper treatment, but Sun flashes in between plot hooks almost as quickly as she does characters.
The solo-performance is weakest in the show’s climax. Even in a full cast production, the scene would have been chaotic and abrupt. The hurricane leading up to it is more spoken about than felt; it has no weight until it suddenly decides the family’s fate. This is exacerbated by one actor juggling three screaming characters at once. One can see how Evelyn’s love of her daughter, Manny’s PTSD, and their father’s masculinity might factor into their split second decisions in retrospect, but in practice the play climaxes only in sound and fury.
On the whole, Sun’s solo performance brings to life a rich and dynamic cast of characters, but that frantic energy also makes for a muddled story. New Yorkers will delight in easily recognizable neighbors of the Lower East Side, but the story seems half-told. Surprising that in a show with only one performer, it still feels like it could have done more with less.
Pike St.. Written and performed by Nilaja Sun. Directed by Ron Russell. Set design by Meghan Raham. Light design by Tyler Micoleau. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Sound design by Ron Russell. Produced by Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.