Nilaja Sun dramatizes the tragedy of an approaching hurricane in Pike St. (at Berkeley Rep through Dec. 9) by imagining the lives of a Puerto Rican family in New York. She inhabits a variety of different characters in the same way that the universally well-regarded Anna Deavere Smith does. But their techniques appear to diverge, in that Smith relies on recorded interviews, truncating her subjects’ lived experiences and then stitching together her monologues. She acts out these stories on stage to provide the audience with a 360-degree view of a significant cultural moment, such as the L.A. riots in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In her work, Smith is a reporter, a playwright, and an actress.
Sun, on the other hand, writes and performs a fictional story based on the lives of people she’s actually known. They don’t tell their own tales. She interprets their experiences for them and builds an 80-minute narrative out of those miscellaneous strands. Pike St. doesn’t cohere in the same way that Smith’s work does. It’s a fable, told in a realistic mode, that coheres around a natural disaster and not the psychology of her characters. Like Smith, Sun is a keen observer of people’s foibles and tics, inhabiting several characters and their experience of the hurricane as it threatens the city. But it’s her skill as an actress that keeps the audience interested, not the way Sun has set up this one-person play.
Pike St. opens with Sun already on stage as the audience takes their seats. Radio announcements play weather updates over the speakers. At first, the actress appears to be in a meditative space, eyes closed, taking deep breaths. Then Sun starts to fold in on herself. Her arms bend and contort, her breathing gets strained. We watch her body writhe in torment. When the play begins, Candi opens her eyes to stare at the audience in a silent yet angry confrontation. Those few moments at the start of Pike St. are the most compelling. They suggest that something otherworldly is taking place. But that sense of mystery disappears until the very last minute.
Instead, Sun chooses to follow Candi’s mother Evelyn. She’s on the phone with Con Edison — New York’s equivalent of PG&E — trying to arrange backup power should the hurricane cut off their electricity. Evelyn tells the phone rep that her daughter had a brain aneurysm, that Candi’s been unable to breathe on her own without a respirator for the past five years. They live with Evelyn’s father, a widower who can’t wait for his daughter to leave the apartment so he can be alone with his girlfriend. They’re also expecting Evelyn’s brother Manny that day. He’s a soldier due to return from a tour of duty in Iraq. And from time to time, their elderly Jewish neighbor Mrs. Applebaum knocks on the door.
Sun moves from character to character credibly and with great ease. But the transitions are often as abrupt as Faye Dunaway’s memorable scene in Chinatown (1974), where she’s slapped into confessing that she’s both a mother and a sister. Where Smith’s stagecraft builds meaningful transitions between her myriad monologues, Sun has to shift in and out of character, and shift and shift. It’s remarkable that her work doesn’t come across as dizzying or frantic even though the characters don’t make much of a lasting impression. Mrs. Applebaum’s dialogue, for example, seems cribbed from a collection of stereotypes. She kvetches and likes bagels and knishes and whatever else the deli has to offer. When we find out at the end that she’s a Holocaust survivor, it doesn’t attend to or fill out any aspect of her character that we’ve heard or come to understand about her.
The misery on stage also starts to become relentless because Sun doesn’t shape it. She just presents it like a laundry list. When Manny arrives, we quickly find out that he’s suffering from PTSD. Evelyn is in a fog of despair about her daughter. Their father eventually gives a monologue about killing women and children in an earlier war. If Pike St. had been conceived of as a play, populated with other actors, the limitations of these dramatic plot points would bring the show to a standstill. It’s Sun herself who commands our attention with her emotions. They inform us that a tragedy has already taken place well before the hurricane blasts the land.
Pike St., through Dec. 9 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $30; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org