Theater Review: Tiny Beautiful Things Won Me Over Against My Will

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Onstage at the Public, Tiny Beautiful Things. Photo: Joan Marcus

In the spirit of “Dear Sugar,” an honest confession: Up till now, I’ve steered clear of the work of Cheryl Strayed. I’m skeptical of Passion Planners, and I make a sharp turn in Barnes & Noble when I encounter the table displaying Eat, Pray, Love and The Desire Map. Really, it’s not the authors of these books I’m avoiding — it’s the warm, fuzzy cult of #selfcare that tends to cocoon around them. I don’t have many allergies, just shellfish and advice.

So it was with some trepidation that I took my seat at Tiny Beautiful Things. Marshall Heyman, director Thomas Kail (of Hamilton fame), and actor-writer Nia Vardalos co-conceived this dramatization of Strayed’s book of the same name (its subtitle: Advice on Life and Love From Dear Sugar), a collection of letters from the author’s two-year stint as the Rumpus’s anonymous advice columnist. Vardalos wrote the adaptation, which premiered in the more intimate Shiva Theater last winter to a quickly sold-out run. The Public took the hint, and now Sugar has moved from a one-bedroom into a full-size house: A whole lot of people want to hear from her. And by the end of the evening, I had to some extent become one of them. Confession No. 2: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t among the chorus of snifflers that starts up about halfway through Tiny Beautiful Things.

Vardalos and Kail are attempting to give their audiences — who brought who knows what variety of struggles and losses into the Newman with them — a comforting place in which they might heal. The show’s definition of healing is a messy, difficult one, and its creators are inviting us to join them in that space, to give ourselves the permission to be “happy and sad and angry and grateful and accepting and appalled and every other possible emotion, all smashed together and amplified” in the face of whatever pains us. That’s a worthy goal, even if you’re the kind of person who suffers a perpetual advice allergy. Vardalos’s playwriting ancestors knew it well — they built their whole dramaturgy around this kind of storytelling. Catharsis, that ancient communal ritual of purging and healing, sits at the heart of Tiny Beautiful Things. In fact, Strayed could have been offering her own definition for the term when she described her work on “Dear Sugar” as “therapy in the town square.”

If the show isn’t as effective as it could be, it’s because of the twofold difficulty of theatricalizing a series of, at the time, anonymous advice columns. Vardalos plays Strayed (a.k.a. Sugar) on a set by Rachel Hauck that realistically renders a lived-in, appealingly cluttered kitchen, dining area, and sitting room: This is her house, her space. She wears a faded CBGB T-shirt with slippers and pajama pants, her hair up in a messy bun — the I’m-not-leaving-the-house uniform of a writer who lives at her laptop (the unaffected costumes are by Jennifer Moeller).

That crucial tool sits on the set’s central table, but we don’t see Vardalos staring into it as much as we see her interacting with her fellow performers, Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Natalie Woolams-Torres. These three portray the dozens who wrote to Sugar, seeking advice on everything from midlife crushes and eighth-grade awkwardness to living with the trauma of rape or the guilt of wanting to leave your marriage. This trio is the secret heart of Tiny Beautiful Things: Their performances are sharp, clear, and emotionally affecting without becoming maudlin. Cañez’s delivery of a long and devastating letter from a father who has lost his son is one of the play’s most powerful moments — in part because Cañez keeps it simple. He isn’t playing at grief. He’s as much a storyteller honestly affected by his story as he is the embodiment of a father in mourning.

There’s also humor in the way the ensemble inhabits the space — lounging on Sugar’s furniture, helping themselves to the cereal or the orange juice (and the vodka) in her kitchen — as perpetual houseguests. The moment Strayed opens her computer, they’re with her in the room, seeking her help with as much urgency and sincerity as a friend sitting there in the flesh on her couch. She feels their presence and their need deeply, and so she responds with equal vulnerability: Her Sugar offers advice by telling personal stories — revealing honest and sometimes awful truths from her own life in the hopes of providing aid through empathy.

This is actually enough. A friend of mine compared Tiny Beautiful Things to a good episode of the Moth, and at its heart, this is what the show wants to be: a well-curated selection of moving stories, told with clarity and candor. But in trying to make a play, Vardalos and her co-conceivers have — understandably but perhaps unnecessarily — added a secondary layer of “drama” to the proceedings: the ongoing questioning by those writing to her of “Who Is Sugar?” It’s not a particularly effective mystery — we know the answer all along. And though we also know that Oedipus is the subject of his own manhunt, at least the revelation at the end of that play means something life-altering to each of the characters onstage.

Here, when Vardalos finally turns to us, standing center stage in a light that looks almost beatific, and announces, “I am Cheryl Strayed,” the effect is … not exactly climactic. The expressions on the faces of Cañez, Point-Du Jour, and Woolams-Torres don’t change as they stare at their glorified fellow cast member. Who Sugar is doesn’t actually matter. In fact, it’s been a big part of Sugar’s (and the play’s) mission to teach us that her identity is far less important than the kind of self-reflection and emotional generosity she hopes to inspire in her audience. That lesson comes through clearly, so why structure the play around the revelation of Strayed’s identity?

That identity creates another wrinkle when we’re encountering Sugar in the flesh, rather than as a ghost in the machine. The stage nixes her anonymity, and so we can’t help noticing an uncomfortable set of moments in which the three letter writers, all played by actors of color, have to gaze rapturously at the wise white lady in the spotlight. Vardalos might have allayed this awkwardness somewhat with a more matter-of-fact, less prayerful delivery, but unlike her castmates, she goes for full earnestness. She’s working hard to show us Sugar’s compassion, but for me, less sentiment would have carried her further.

Kail and Vardalos manage to save themselves, though, with the show’s finale, in which the ensemble gets to make good on Strayed’s protestation that “Sugar is not just me. We created something together. We are all Sugar.” It’s refreshing to see Cañez, Point-Du Jour, and Woolams-Torres finally get a chance to do the telling, rather than the asking, and it ensures that Tiny Beautiful Things, despite its shortcomings, ends in a place of community and generosity.

Confession No. 1: Before the show, a stranger saw me having a poorly hidden emotional conversation on my cell phone and handed me four chocolate cookies, saying, “Here. These will help. Have a nice day.” The cookies were still in my backpack as I left the Public, and I couldn’t help feeling grateful for that little dose of sugar, and for a show that aims to open our eyes to the tiny moments when the world surprises us with care.

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If you’re going to fill a play with multiple moments in which the characters stare into the fourth wall and repeat strained variations on the undying existential quandary, “Why are we here?,” you’d better be damn sure your audience isn’t asking its own somewhat more pressing version of the same question. Scott Carter’s first (and only) full-length play, now being produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, has a title that lasts longer than its interest onstage. Carter is a writer and executive producer for Real Time With Bill Maher, and it’s depressing to see someone with media power being given the opportunity to stage a play that might make an okay SNL sketch but wouldn’t get an unestablished writer into grad school. The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: DISCORD is the theatrical equivalent of one of those movies you go to see on the strength of a compelling trailer, which you quickly realize contained exactly all of the worthwhile content from the full film.

The premise has potential: The play’s eponymous heroes — all Great Men of literature and/or philosophy — meet in a kind of limbo. Turns out that in life, they all felt rather strongly about that most foundational of Western myths (or truths, depending on your point of view): the story of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. They felt so strongly, in fact, that each of them wrote his own version of the Gospel. Now, here they all are in a celestial waiting room (here given the blank-white-walls-with-institutional-drop-ceiling treatment by director Kimberly Senior and scenic designer Wilson Chin), thrown together by some invisible hand, with nothing to do but struggle to figure out how to open that locked door over on stage right. Why are they here? How can they escape? Whose interpretation of the Gospel will win out in the end? And once they’ve arrived onstage, one at a time, and pedantically established the temporal incongruity — paraphrase: But I died in 1826! And I died in 1870! And I died in 1910! HOW ODD — they’re finally ready to turn to us and pose the question that we’ll all be asking for the next 90 minutes. “Time bends,” says Jefferson; “Or twists!” adds Dickens; “— to gather us,” finishes Tolstoy, lobbing the softball back to Jefferson. He stares portentously and ponders, “But why?”

I’m honestly still not certain. DISCORD unfolds in all the ways you’d expect it to, without ever providing a compelling explanation for what we’re all doing in a theater together. The thinkers compare thoughts, fight over their versions of the Gospel, and, when the door still won’t open, eventually turn to confessions and recrimination (of both self and other). “Perhaps we must examine our lives? Push our scrutinies into each others’ hearts” is a line actually uttered in the play.

The shocking revelation is, of course, that the Truth Shall Set You Free. The door will only open for our three Great Men once they have admitted that they weren’t particularly Good. But are we really supposed to be surprised as we listen to Dickens confess to his unhappy family life and his long-term affair with Nelly Ternan? Are we supposed to be shocked as Thomas Jefferson weeps over the hypocrisy of having been a slave-owning advocate for freedom? (Weirdly but mercifully, Tolstoy is spared an equally long excoriation for pretty much the same crime.) Carter actually seems to be holding the fact of Sally Hemings in reserve, as if it’s a bomb to be dropped on Jefferson’s character at the play’s emotional climax. I hate to break it to him, but we’re all well acquainted with Sally by now. I doubt that many New York theatergoers will be able to avoid thinking of Daveed Diggs’s preening, philosophical fukboi Jefferson in Hamilton. His delivery of one off-handed aside regarding an important letter he’s just received — “Sally be a lamb, darlin’, won’tcha open it?” — revealed more about the man’s blind spots and skewered him more effectively than anything in Carter’s play.

Putting great writers onstage is a dangerous game. The risk is that they’ll never be as brilliant as their writings nor as human as a character ought to be. Each man here feels oversimplified to a central fixation — Dickens: Fancy, Jefferson: Reason, Tolstoy: Spirit — and both Jefferson and Dickens come off as broadly accented caricatures (especially Duane Boutté’s Dickens, all dramatically rolled r’s and vocal affectations, straight out of The Scarlet Pimpernel). Thom Sesma as Tolstoy is the only actor who avoids the cartoon, and it’s because his part is underwritten. Carter frequently seems to forget he’s there, leaving him brooding in the background of many of the play’s debates. Ironically, Tolstoy comes off better and more human in his silence than his comrades do in their chatter.

“Is the world better off for our having lived?” moans Jefferson late in the evening. It’s a spurious question: The answer is yes, and this apologia for the Problematic Great White Dead Dude is a turgid and unnecessary one. We don’t need to see these characters feel bad. Their shamefacedness in the great beyond is not what’s necessary in the here and now. A clear-eyed view of both their incredible achievements as contributors to our culture and their serious flaws as human beings is. A short visit to Wikipedia is all it takes to begin that parsing process. But it takes more than a couple of Wikipedia articles to make a play.

Tiny Beautiful Things is at the Public Theater through December 10.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: DISCORD is at the Cherry Lane Theatre through October 22.

Theater: Tiny Beautiful Things Won Me Over Against My Will