'Tiny Beautiful Things': Theater Review

Tiny Beautiful Things - Nia Vardalos and Phillip James Branno - Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Any advice columnist worth their salt would steer you away from this painfully dull theater piece.

Nia Vardalos stars in the Public Theater's world premiere of her play adapted from the best-selling self-help book by Cheryl Strayed, author of 'Wild.'

Have you ever read a personal advice column in a newspaper or online and thought to yourself, “Gee, it would be so much better if only the letters and replies were being read aloud?” Didn’t think so. But apparently Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame did, as evidenced by Tiny Beautiful Things, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Public Theater.

Tellingly, the program credits Vardalos not as the writer, but rather the adaptor. That’s certainly a more accurate description, since she, along with her co-conceivers, journalist Marshall Heyman and director Thomas Kail, have done little to add actual drama to this lackluster theatrical piece based on the 2012 best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild.

The book collects samples from “Dear Sugar,” the advice columns that Strayed anonymously wrote for an online literary magazine. In the play, we first see “Sugar” (Vardalos) puttering around her multi-level dwelling cluttered with children’s paraphernalia, including drawings on the refrigerator and tiny raincoats hung near the front door. She receives a phone call from a colleague she met at a writer’s conference who asks her if she’d be willing to take over the advice column he’s been writing. Despite the lack of credit or compensation — and the fact that she has two kids and is hard at work on a book — Sugar, after hesitating for only a moment, agrees.

Thus begins roughly 75 minutes in which numerous characters — played by Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso and Natalie Woolams Torres — recite their letters to the column, all beginning with “Dear Sugar.” Sugar, in turn, delivers heartfelt, sometimes insightful, but more often platitudinous replies that could have been penned by Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley.

Some of the exchanges are amusing, such as Sugar’s response to a male writer’s query about whether he should fulfill his girlfriend’s sexual fantasy involving Santa Claus. Then there are the repeated letters consisting merely of “What the f—? What the f—? What the f—? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Best, WTF.”

Most of the missives, however, are of the plaintive variety. Sugar’s answers frequently reveal deeply personal things about herself, including her past heroin addiction and having been sexually molested by her grandfather starting when she was three years old.

Although there are some powerful moments, such as the correspondence with a father despondent over the hit-and-run death of his 22-year-old son, a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. It takes serious self-control not to flee the theater upon hearing this exchange:  “Dear Sugar, if love were an animal, what species would it be and could you train it?” “Love would be two animals: a hummingbird and a snake. Both are untrainable.”

Director Kail, an Emmy winner for Grease Live! apparently taking time off from staging new incarnations of Hamilton, provides little theatricality to the static proceedings other than having the actors constantly wander around the cramped set. Vardalos, looking suitably unglamorous, is appealing as always. But she can’t breathe life into her inherently passive, responsive role, while the supporting players fulfill their rote duties with solid professionalism.

By the time the seemingly interminable proceedings reach their conclusion, you’ll be mentally dictating your own letter to Sugar, asking how to erase the memory of monotonous evenings in the theater like this one.

Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Nia Vardalos, Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso, Miriam Silverman
Playwright: Nia Vardalos, adapted from the book by Cheryl Strayed
Co-conceivers: Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, Nia Vardalos
Director: Thomas Kail
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff
Presented by The Public Theater