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Tiny Beautiful Things

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 2, 2017

Teddy Cañez and Nia Vardalos
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's not exactly a case of fake news, but there is an unshakable artificiality to the presumably true stories that are being aired in Tiny Beautiful Things, which opened tonight in a return engagement at the Public Theater. And while the play delivers a number of emotionally moving moments (including one that is nearly transcendent), it is difficult to get past the fact that the characters who seem to be interacting are at a remove and unknowable.

This is a play about strangers reaching out to strangers via an actual online advice column called "Dear Sugar" that was written by Cheryl Strayed between 2010 and 2012. Strayed turned the columns into a best selling book, and the writer and actress Nia Vardalos has adapted that book into the play. Ms. Vardalos also stars as the pseudonymous "Sugar," whom we watch reading and responding to the e-mails that have been submitted to her. Those advice seekers are represented in the play by the other three cast members (Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Natalie Woolmans-Torres) who circle Sugar and recite as she reads on her computer.

Many of the letters are quirkily funny, like the one from the woman who has an "arrangement" with a married man, who pays her for her services. She wants to know if this is taxable income. Others are along the lines of "should I leave my spouse?" or "should I indulge my partner's sexual fantasy?" Sugar handles these kind of queries with a few pointed replies. But it's not so easy when the cries for help come off as genuinely heartfelt, like the one from the woman who miscarried six months into her pregnancy and cannot get over her loss. Or the transgender man whose long-estranged parents want to get back in touch with him.

Only a curmudgeon would be immune to these pleas, and Cheryl/Sugar is no curmudgeon. She responds to these letters with both advice and love, infusing her answers with stories of her own difficulties, troubled relationships, and a bout with drug addiction. And there is that transcendent moment between the columnist and a man who is desperately sad following the accidental death of his son. As performed by Ms. Vardalos and Mr. Cañez, this is the emotional high point of the play. His pain is palpable, and her response is the embodiment of empathy and kindness. It is breathtaking.

Director Thomas Kail has brought the stories as far off the page as possible, by putting the strangers' words into the mouths of the supporting cast members who are constantly crossing Ms. Vardalos's path as she sits at her computer or moves about scenic designer Rachel Hauck's suburban home setting (but without ever an anchoring glimpse of Cheryl's husband or children). But no matter how much affection and design went into the production, it remains a nagging truth that none of the interactions is really taking place. The cast members we see moving about the stage like ghosts do not represent characters. They switch identities at the drop of a hat, leaving us with a constant reminder that the only character being portrayed here is Cheryl/Sugar. Both the queries and her responses are filtered through her giftedness as a writer, so that everything we see represents an aspect of her ability to manipulate the story (and the audience) through her literary talents. This is what is troubling about Tiny Beautiful Things, not that it isn't heartwarming (it is), but that it is too crafted. In the end, it is less of a play than a book talk.

Tiny Beautiful Things
Through December 10
The Public's Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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