Review of Tiny Beautiful Things, Long Wharf Theatre
Plot and character are intrinsically linked. Often what keeps us watching (or reading) is the question “what will happen?” And what happens tells us something about the people involved. We learn something about them, and they learn something about themselves. Or not, at their peril.
Tiny Beautiful Things, now playing at Long Wharf Theatre, has been adapted for the stage by Nia (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s book of that name. The book is comprised of letters Strayed received, while writing as “Sugar,” the anonymous online advice columnist for The Rumpus, and her replies. The stage show of this material orchestrates the questions and the answers so that there is a flow of lighter and darker elements, and throughout there is the ongoing question of who “Sugar” is. Not simply in the sense of what her real name is (it’s no spoiler to say that it does get revealed onstage), but in the more important sense of who she is, as a dispenser of advice and moral support to the many anonymous authors who query her.
That question, then, is the only element of character revelation the play can offer as dramatic interest. All the writers asking their questions—played onstage by Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, and Brian Sgambati—are presented as one-time-only correspondents. There is no follow-up, no sense of whether or not anyone heeds Sugar’s advice, or changes their minds or behavior, nor of what they might think of what she told them. The queries cover diverse situations, from extramarital crushes to when to tell a woman you love her, from whether or not to reconcile with parents who mishandled their child’s gender divergence to whether or not to tell one’s boyfriend about a rape one suffered long ago, from how to cope with a devastating miscarriage to how to cope with the devastating death of a grown son.
What you might think of what Sugar tells them, I suspect, has a lot to do with how you approach the question of giving advice, based on a one-sided letter, to people you have never met. The key to Sugar’s success is that she thrives at the task and that her many fans loved reading her responses. She sometimes dramatizes, in writing, her difficulty in replying but she always finds something in the well and seems pleased with whatever she comes up with. The queries, even when encapsulating complicated situations, are often impressively succinct. Sugar’s replies rarely are.
The responses are only occasionally advice, in the play. More often they are occasions for Sugar to divulge information about herself. And that aspect—what she confesses—gradually lets us build up a picture of her character, an effect more interesting as simply a voice on the screen, I imagine. Onstage, we see Cindy Cheung play Sugar as a writer and novelist who takes the gig due to some affinity for it, and, one supposes, the attraction of reaching people immediately in writing. As a character, Cheung maintains a certain reassuring stoicism, as her honest self-appraisal is key to how Sugar has endured the trials and errors of her own life. And that’s primarily what she tries to pass along.
At Long Wharf, Kimie Nishikawa’s set design places the action in a comfy, green backyard, outside the rear of a very realistic house. There’s a certain logic to it. Sugar exists for her readers only in words, online. She spends most of her time, as a character, sitting at a picnic table at a laptop, or talking earnestly to people who mime listening as she speaks. Here, she is given a very mundane setting, an image of normality that works, as does Cheung’s steady voice, as a way of holding all the chaos and turmoil of such messy lives at bay. Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction highlights the hominess and the sense of the letter writers as neighbors who “drop by” in Sugar’s mind.
How happy Strayed’s readers will be with the Long Wharf production will likely have to do with how well they feel the show catches the call-and-response drama of the exchanges. The most successful, in that view, is Brian Sgambati’s rendering of “Living Dead Dad,” a father whose son was struck down by a drunk driver. Sgambati gives a carefully modulated reading of LDD’s list of how he tries to cope and can’t. The reply finds Sugar mimicking his list structure, trying to push him beyond his settled misery into some other light. There is a small but dramatic gesture at the end of Sugar’s list. The play doesn’t say what became of the real LDD, but lets us take this as a moment of implied catharsis. If only it were that easy.
Occasionally, for the sake of her audience, Sugar will make light of her correspondent’s plight in a good-humored way. Some of the writers seem at least a little tongue-in-cheek. But when she finally responds to “WTF,” whose query “what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck” is asked “about everything, every day,” she chooses not to treat this as a chance to show her sense of humor (or to advise having one). Instead, she tells a story of her own abuse as a child that puts the burden of making sense on WTF (and everyone listening). Victimization of children is appalling, and Sugar speaks of the experience as somehow intrinsic to her sense of where she wound up (which includes a period as a heroin addict). As a reply to WTF, Sugar’s story might easily inspire a more vehement “what the fuck?” In making “the fuck” be about herself, Sugar says, she wants WTF to see how s/he is also the fuck. One supposes this stopped the query, but one still wonders what the fuck WTF was pissed off about.
In the play, Sugar never connects the dots in her own life; she uses her experience as examples but not as events that contribute to a progressive narrative of how she became who she is. She tells us things that happened. Doubtless there were many other things as well. And many other letters. And more stories of fucked-up situations than there could ever be enough time for. Sugar maintained a connection through the site with the folks out there for two years. Then published a selection of the correspondence which became a best-selling book. Now, a smaller selection has been dramatized for the edification of audiences. What we learn, arguably, is how each querier is generally the same character, a voice trapped in a plot not of its own making and looking for a little clarifying input. As theater, the show strikes me as something like a punishment in Hades: to ask night after night the same question and get always the same reply.
Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Set Design: Kimie Nishikawa; Costume Design: Arnulfo Maldonado; Lighting Design: Yuki Nakase; Sound Design: Leah Gelpe; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern
Cast: Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati
Long Wharf Theatre
February 13-March 10, 2019