BWW Review: Nia Vardalos' TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS Returns To The Public
It may have been underestimated how popular Tiny Beautiful Things would prove to be when it opened at The Public's Shiva Theater last November. Actor/playwright Nia Vardalos' warm, funny and endearing adaptation of the same-named book of collected advice columns written for the literary website The Rumpus by Cheryl Strayed, under the pen name Sugar, packed fans into the 100-seat space, making the quietly emotional play one of the town's hottest tickets.
Its return visit now occupies The Public's Newman Theater, which holds nearly three times as many.
There's no plot to the 80-minute piece and very little drama in the traditional sense. It only takes one page of dialogue to establish the setup that a woman (Vardalos) receives an email from the man who had been previously writing the "Dear Sugar" column, saying that he's tired of the gig and was wondering if she would like to take over.
The job offers no pay and no authorship credit, but after explaining that her husband is an artist and that she's trying to finish a book while raising two kids and trying to manage "ten mountains of debt," she instinctively replies, "Yeah, I'm in."
And for the rest of the show, three actors (Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour and Natalie Woolmans-Torres) pop in and out of designer Rachel Hauck's suburban kitchen and living room set, voicing the emails she receives.
"When is it right to take that big step and say I love you?"
"When I was six and a half months pregnant, I miscarried... My doctor said it was because I was overweight."
"I'm afraid of my violent older brother who terrorizes me."
As directed by Thomas Kail, they don't try to portray each of the dozens of characters, but rather act as only partially defined representations.
Vardalos voices Sugar's responses as she goes about her daily routine of fixing school lunches and trying to restore order to her cluttered surroundings. The faded CBGB's t-shirt she wears and the "Question Authority" sticker on her laptop suggests a less conventional youth.
At first, Sugar's regular readers notice a change in writing style and inquire if indeed their regular source of comfort and entertainment has been replaced. Then, with every answer, Tiny Beautiful Things evolves into a character study of the woman now providing the words of Sugar and of her relationship with her unseen audience.
Taken directly from Strayed's columns, her advice is not that of a trained professional, but of a compassionate fellow human extending sympathetic words. When a woman hesitates to tell the great guy she's been dating that she was once raped, fearing that it may adversely affect their relationship, Sugar quotes a friend of hers, a painter, who was in a similar situation.
"I could allow myself to be influenced by a man who screwed me against my will or I could allow myself to be influenced by van Gogh. I chose van Gogh."
An email from a man with an abusive father prompts a lengthy description of Sugar's own complicated relationship with her dad, and of the unlikely way she found healing.
With no dramatic through-line, Vardalos and Kail establish rhythms and tension by balancing the funny with the emotional, the quick Q&As with the lengthy confessionals. As Sugar, Vardalos is continually touched, amused and amazed by her readers, and conveys the feeling that she can see them collectively as a singular person to be cared for and cherished, hoping that they'll always see themselves as deserving of life's Tiny Beautiful Things.