Friday, October 6, 2017

81 (2017-2018): Review: TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS (seen October 5, 2017)

“Dear Sugar”

When I think of writer Cheryl Strayed, my first impression is of Reese Witherspoon, one of my favorite actresses, playing her in the movie Wild, based on Strayed’s best-selling memoir about her struggles hiking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. Last fall, Strayed again became a dramatic character, this time through a stage adaptation of another best-seller, Tiny Beautiful Things, produced in the Public Theater’s small Shiva Theater. The adaptor and star was Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), working with co-conceivers Thomas Kail (Hamilton), who also directed, and Marshall Heyman.
Hubert Pont-Du Jour, Nia Vardalos, Natalie Woolam-Torres. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The play was so warmly received, and so many theatergoers (myself included) were frustrated at not being able to get in during its limited run, that it’s been brought back to fill the more expansive Newman Theater’s stage and auditorium. From the start, critics have been sharply divided on the results, with many finding the work deeply moving, even profound, others appreciating its intentions and heart but not its lack of conventional characters, dialogue, and narrative. I side with the latter.

Hubert Pont-Du Jour, Nia Vardalos. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life is a collection of the letters Strayed, mother of two kids, received when writing, without salary, an anonymous, online advice-column, “Dear Sugar,” for The Rumpus between 2010-2012. The book is filled with her wise, heartwarming, candid, funny, and elegantly composed responses, almost always based on her personal experiences. The play Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of the letters Strayed received, etc., etc.
Teddy Canes, Nia Vardalos, Natalie Woolams=Torres, Hubert Pont-Du Jour. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Vardalos and her collaborators, of course, have crafted the material to make it stageworthy, setting it in Rachel Hauck’s sprawling, realistic interior setting, filled with the detritus of family life: kitchen at our left, staircase up center, living room at our right. Vardalos’s Strayed, dressed by designer Jennifer Moeller in grungy, at-home togs, including red plaid pajama bottoms, wanders around the space, presumed to be her Pacific Coast home, doing minor household tasks as she interacts with three actors, two men (Teddy Cañez and Hubert Pont-Du Jour) and a woman (Natalie Woolams-Torres, the only returnee, aside from Vardalos, from 2016).
Natalie Woolams-Torres, Nia Vardalos. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The supporting actors serve as a chorus-like trio, vocalizing a stream of letters and listening to Strayed’s reactions. The material is sometimes orchestrated into bits and pieces for theatrical effect, and there’s a definite sense of musical structure to the letters’ alternating dramatic and comic nature or to thematic strains, including attacks on Strayed’s responses and the growing interest of her readers in learning more about her identity and appearance.
Teddy Canes, Nia Vardalos. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The letters’ subjects run the gamut, covering questions dealing with love, dating, grief, parents, sex, transgenderism, rape, and so on. Strayed seems to have a personal story, often wrenching, for every problem, and she tells them with surprising frankness, not hesitating to talk about experiences with her own abusive family members or to use raw language in doing so. She manages to be at once a friend, a counselor, a shrink, and a philosopher, always showing humane concern for her correspondents’ feelings and state of mind. Tiny Beautiful Things may not be great drama but it’s hard to avoid tearing up now and then.

Even as well performed as the show is, particularly in Vardalos’s friendly, casual, sincere, and even self-effacing portrayal, 85 uninterrupted minutes of it is asking for trouble. It’s the kind of material many people prefer to read in dribs and drabs, perhaps on a daily or less regular basis, which is what columns are made for; on stage, though, with one letter and response following the other, with the letter writers being generalized figures (only subtle hints differentiate one from the other), and with the only dramatic tension residing in what the next letter might say, there’s plenty of room for boredom to invade the premises.

And that’s neither a tiny nor a beautiful thing.


The Public Theater/Newman Theater
425 Lafayette St., NYC
Through December 10