Pike St.: Theater review by Raven Snook
Seeing Nilaja Sun perform solo is like watching a virtuosic musician. The masterful way she plays her instrument—her chameleonlike self—inspires awe as she conjures a vibrant community alone onstage, with startling changes in voice and demeanor signaling a switch to another character. This won't surprise anyone who saw her previous one-person show, No Child…, about an idealistic teacher trying to bring theater to hardened students at a failing Bronx high school. But marveling at her breathtaking solo acting skills never gets old.
As a writer, however, she could use a little collaboration. Pike St. trades in tropes as a Puerto Rican family living in a Lower East Side tenement prepares to weather a massive Sandy-like storm. There's the horny widower grandfather; his daughter, Evelyn, an aspiring healer who's consumed with caring for her teenage daughter, Candace, completely impaired due to a mysterious illness; his son, Manny, a PTSD-suffering hero just returned from combat; plus a senile Jewish neighbor, a local drug dealer and other denizens of the ’hood.
Sun, who grew up in the area, is convincing as each of these people, radiating respect and empathy, even when they say or do questionable things. But the engaging 80-minute piece, commissioned by Epic Theatre Ensemble and skillfully directed by Ron Russell, feels unfocused. It tries to tackle a few too many big ideas, from the power of nontraditional medicine and the ineptitude of local government to classicism and racism, all tied up with an overwrought ending.
But such flaws are pretty much eclipsed by Sun's brilliant performance. Pike St.'s plot may fade, but you'll never forget the way she transforms into Candace, her body contorting into an unnatural pose, her breathing labored and her kilowatt smile giving way to a blank expression save for searching eyes. Sun demands that we stop and acknowledge the humanity in folks who are often treated as invisible.—Raven Snook
Abrons Arts Center (Off Broadway). Written and performed by Nilaja Sun. Directed by Ron Russell. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.