Off Broadway Reviews
If anyone is going to be able to cram the entire Lower East Side onto a stage no bigger than the average New York City living room, it's Nilaja Sun. And in Pike St., her new one-woman play at the Abrons Arts Center, that's exactly what she does. An adult Latina woman, her 15-year-old disabled daughter, her ancient Jewish neighbor from down the hall, a strapping Navy SEAL just returned from active duty, and oh so very many more wild and wonderful people create a community so thriving and diverse that stepping outside afterward almost comes as a disappointment. For Sun, and for you when you expose yourself to her work, the theatre is more real than reality.
This will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who's followed Sun's career. Though she's appeared in, and frequently dominated, plays by other writers (The Commons of Pensacola, Einstein's Gift, Huck and Holden), she's perhaps best known as the writer and actor of the miniature 2006 epic No Child..., one of the finest solo shows of the last decade. There, she played a vast array of children as well as herself, all mixing within New York classrooms while offering sly, thoughtful commentary on George W. Bushera education, all resulting in something that was moving, funny, surprising, and, above all else, unforgettable.
Pike St., at least at the beginning, looks to follow a similar course. As Hurricane Delores is about to develop the city, we follow a day in the lives of a group of residents as they struggle to prepare and, as is their lot, merely subsist. The closest to a central character is Evelyn Vega, the mom (of Puerto Rican descent, but born in the U.S.), who's the fulcrum of life within her apartment building. She's taken a new job as a sort of spirit healer, using relaxation techniques and (it's implied) hypnosis to dull painit's not something she especially believes in, but she needs the flexibility the vocation allows so that she can take care of her daughter, who, following a shock illness a few years before, cannot eat, dress, or bathe herself.
Evelyn's tale is but one of many that unfold as Sun explores the neighborhood, showing how different people deal with adversity actual and imagined. That old Jewish lady, for example, has a terrible, or perhaps just selective, memory (she boasts of surviving the Great Depressionbut she means the Ronald Reagan presidency), but must have her bialys and lottery numbers. That SEAL, Manny, may be suffering from PTSD, or maybe just difficulty readjusting to life outside the armed forces, as the friends he repeatedly terrorizes would be the first to attest. And as the various denizens interact, still more details emerge: of lies and betrayals, yes, but also a brotherhood that no harsh winds and torrential rain could ever drown.
Sun is probably at her best during these conversations, when, with serpentine agility, she morphs between daffily disparate personalities in fractions of a second, over and over again, letting you see both sides of everything that's said as clearly as if two people were standing in front of you. If one or two of her portrayals are overly broad (Manny's sidekick-like friend has a tendency to suck his vowels and drop his jaw to the floor in awe of, well, practically everything), on balance they're genuinely amazing, and of stunningly airtight precision. She and her director (Ron Russell) make you care completely about everyone, to the point that you become all but addicted to considering what's going to happen next.
That, alas, is the one, big, glaring problem: There is no next. Though Sun establishes the hurricane as an existential threat almost immediately, and sets up the entire play as the lead-up to it, Delores doesn't hit until 75 minutes inand five minutes later, the evening is over. We see almost nothing of what Sun is seemingly promising throughout: a dissection of how we're all transformed by tragedy, and what community really means in those kinds of circumstances. A dozen perfectly etched character portraits are all well and good, but when you're led to expect something broader, deeper, and more insightful, but nothing close to that is delivered, nagging dissatisfaction is the inevitable result.
The underlying artistry, however, is as good as it gets, thus making the whole endeavor as instructive as it is frustrating. There's no better way to see just how far one performer can stretch the "one-person play" concept. And if Sun can mold it into a work whose story and execution are as dazzling as she is, Pike St. could well take all of New Yorknot just the LESby storm.