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Tiny Beautiful Things

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 7, 2016

Nia Vardalos (foreground),
Natalie Woolams-Torres, and Alfredo Narciso
Photo by Joan Marcus

Dialogue is the chief building block of theatre for a reason. The give and take of words and ideas, as imbued with texture, variety, sensitivity, wit, and any of a thousand other qualities, can spark conflict and transformation in a way traditional two-dimensional speechifying simply can't. Epistolary plays can, and sometimes do, work, but generally every letter sent by either side anticipates a response. Advice columns, though, would seem to necessarily be confined to printed media: You don't have two people talking to each other, you have two people talking at each other, one asking a void and one responding to a void, and that means that all the fire and ice that are summoned in face-to-face exchanges can never be conjured.

This is the reason—really, the only reason—that Tiny Beautiful Things, which just opened at The Public Theater, doesn't work. Based on the 2012 book of the same title by Cheryl Strayed, who compiled it from her writings for "Dear Sugar," which she wrote for a couple of years on, it presents nothing more than a woman (Nia Vardalos, who wrote the adaptation that she conceived with Marshall Heyman and director Thomas Kail) confronted by a series of vexing questions of the heart and head, which she either answers or not. For 75 minutes. The questions are gorgeously intoned by Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso, and Natalie Woolams-Torres, who bound between among many and varied genders, ethnicities, and ages. But intoning those questions is, essentially, all they do.

To the extent drama occurs along the way, it's found in the gradual peeling away of the layers of artifice Sugar builds up around herself to defend against the dangers of Internet anonymity. She discovers early on she must share painful truths about herself to connect with her readers, which kindles a powerful intimacy, and by the final scenes she is laid utterly bare before her audience. This is made most clear at the climax, in a series of 22 devastated statements directed at her by a man who's consumed with grief over the death of his son, to which she replies in 24 equally raw sentences of her own. "Your son hasn't yet taught you everything he has to teach you," she cautions—the father still must come to grips with true acceptance, as Sugar herself has had to.

Is that journey enough to power a full evening, even one this comparatively short? For me, no. There's no way to build to anything of concrete significance: To possess her requisite authority, Sugar must have already attained her surest self; for the underlying conceit to work, we must never know whether any of her correspondents ever attains theirs. All of the intermediate steps are missing on both sides, and it's in witnessing the growth between the extremes that we would grow ourselves. And colorful as the issues are ("When is it right to take that big step and say I love you?", "I want to know how to care again," "Can I forgive myself without admitting to people how I wronged them?"), they are ultimately, unavoidably inert both before and after they pass through our ears.

Yes, Kail's staging is crisp and, within its sphere, inventive in propelling the script; and there's a beautiful house set (designed by Rachel Hauck and lighted by Jeff Croiter) that anchors everything within the realm of Everyman domesticity. And yes, Vardalos is superb: stern and sympathetic, tenacious and understanding, fervent and funny but in no way judgmental, and she does as much as could be expected to make something three-dimensional bloom from this one-sided concept. But she can't construct a play without so much as the raw materials for one. All she can do is preside.

She does that expertly, of course, but a lack of talent anywhere within it is not remotely the problem—it's that the voluminous talent that is associated with it can't help but be misapplied. Because the "characters" don't go anywhere, they can't lead us to the absolution, the redemption, and the exaltation we seek, even though Sugar displays the ability to grant all these things and more to the people she touches. Alas, she's talking only to them, and not to us. That may be good enough for advice columns, but in the theatre, we need to be engaged, too. Otherwise, we may just as well be sitting at home staring at a computer screen. Sadly, that's exactly what most of Tiny Beautiful Things feels like.

Tiny Beautiful Things
Through December 31
The Public Theater - Shiva Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
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