Tiny Beautiful Things
Nia Vardalos moves into a bigger space at the Public Theater for her return engagement as "Dear Sugar."
In the program notes for Tiny Beautiful Things, now back in New York for its second run at the Public Theater, the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis writes, "I don't attend church, I don't believe in God, but I believe in Cheryl Strayed."
If "radical empathy" is Strayed's gift, radical devotion is the way people are compelled to reciprocate. It's been that way ever since she put on her "Dear Sugar" hat and began churning out advice on love and life with no qualifications other than her own humanity (her "Dear Sugar" predecessor Steve Almond is responsible for the "radical empathy" turn of phrase). Those advice columns eventually became a best-selling compilation that now lends its name to the theatricalized recitations that adapter and performer Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and her director Tommy Kail (Hamilton) have compressed into a tiny beautiful diamond of a show.
Save the expansion of Rachel Hauck's set design — a meticulously cluttered split-level home that now sits in the Public's largest space (the Newman) — Vardalos re-creates the same performance she debuted last fall. It's not a "play" in the classic sense. There is no linear plot, with only a semblance of what you could call character development, doled out through the intimate personal anecdotes Sugar (i.e. Strayed) includes in her responses to the impassioned letters in her inbox. She responds to a letter from the commitment-phobic "Confused" with the story of her mother's premature death; she replies to the crude (and oft-repeated) query "WTF?" with a description of her childhood sexual abuse; and she answers "Still Not Buying It"'s indictment of her inconsistencies as a spiritual adviser with a detailed inventory of her inner contradictions, including a history of drug use that not many advice columnists would dare make public knowledge.
Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Natalie Woolams-Torres are the voices and often incongruous faces of these advice-seeking characters. They recite the contents of their letter, Sugar offers her reply, and so it ping-pongs for 85 minutes with untarnished sincerity on all sides — Vardalos serving as a particularly captivating anchor for the cornucopia of characters she warmly embraces. The actors occasionally succumb to the emotion of their words (particularly Cañez who has to deliver the Mount Everest of letters as the father of a child killed in a car accident). But Kail allows his actors only slightly more dimension than the words on a computer screen. These letters, after all, are in ink, not flesh and blood. Sugar can feel the desperation on the page, and yet will always remain at arm's length, no matter how close to them she feels (though Kail does have her cross that physical boundary only once, with Cañez).
In a theatrical setting, this built-in sense of remove is a dangerous constraint, but a risk that ultimately maintains the enchanting purity of Tiny Beautiful Things. Even more so than on the page, the play offers a meditative rhythm of delivery, acceptance, and response: There's a completeness of thought in every letter, a pause as Sugar takes each one in, and a focused intention behind every reply. There's virtually no room for drama in such a systematic mode of communication — and while we are at the theater, it's a welcome respite from a world bolstered by conviction but crumbling under ego. Yes, the emotional stories are tear-jerkers, but it's the novelty of thoughtful dialogue — and the realization of its near extinction — that will make you weep .