Tiny Beautiful Things is a curious, only-in-New York beast: adapted by and featuring the screenwriter/star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Nia Vardalos), from a collection of advice columns by the acclaimed Wild memoirist (Cheryl Strayed), staged by the director (Thomas Kail) and original producer (Public Theater) of Hamilton. It’s the kind of random concatenation that seems just crazy enough to generate life, but Tiny Beautiful Things is dead on arrival. With its monochromatic script, repetitive staging, and tone-deaf politics, it’s the anti-Hamilton.
Those who have read Wild or seen the Oscar-nominated 2014 film starring Reese Witherspoon will be familiar with the reflective candor that characterizes Strayed’s voice. The 2013 release of Wild made her an instant literary star, but Tiny Beautiful Things finds her pre-fame, a published author yet struggling to finish her next book and suffocating under “ten mountains of debt.” When an acquaintance offers her a job dispensing advice as the pseudonymous “Dear Sugar” for literary website The Rumpus in 2010, she jumps at the chance, primarily as a way to avoid her other writing.
Vardalos’s Strayed is a guileless new age guru. The text is constructed from her interactions with numerous advice seekers, played with an earnest Everyman dispassion by Teddy Cañez, Natalie Woolams-Torres, and Hubert Point-Du Jour. They float around Rachel Hauck’s ultra-detailed set of kitchen, living room, and shag carpet; they plead for help, listen intently, and cajole Sugar to reveal her identity. Kail’s staging conceit unfussily suggests the thousands of strangers longing for connection in the non-place of the Internet, and shows how warmly Strayed invites readers into her life. They are her houseguests, at least in spirit.
The concept also, unfortunately, padlocks the actors inside a 90-minute hamster wheel. They wander from couch to bay window to kitchen stool and back again; there’s nowhere else to go, for the staging or the story. They’re the houseguests who will never leave.
Tiny Beautiful Things is sporadically striking, largely thanks to Strayed’s killer metaphors. She describes her youth-advocacy work as “like trying to push an 18-wheeler with your pinky” and encourages a reader to “tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.” “Acceptance,” she says, “is a small, quiet room.” And the collage (it’s not a play, exactly) has a welcome hard edge. Strayed responds to a particularly peevish supplicant with the story of how she was sexually abused by her grandfather as a young child. It’s a chilling, unexpected moment that makes it easy to understand the appeal of the material to the production’s architects (Kail, Vardalos, and Marshall Heyman are billed as co-conceivers). If only it weren’t all so unrelentingly tedious.
Even the tedium might be tolerable, however, if not for the jaw-dropping lack of introspection in Strayed’s columns. She tells a 34-year-old transgender man that he is no better for refusing to accept the parents who kicked him out of the house than they are for refusing to accept him. When readers pester Strayed to reveal her identity, she replies that age, ethnicity, and achievements would create an interpretive screen for her answers if readers knew who she was. It never even seems to occur to her that her counsel, no matter how rooted in common experience or personal trauma, is not universally applicable. “Yes, I am Sugar. And so are all of you,” she proffers near the end. Well, no.
To pretend that Sugar, as embodied by Strayed and Vardalos, is not the product of age, ethnicity, achievements, gender, or social class is disingenuous. There is no wellspring of catholic wisdom waiting for the right columnist, playwright, novelist, or critic to tap into, no matter how masterly the prose. Tiny Beautiful Things, with its promise of healing, comes dangerously close to propaganda for a very limited, very white worldview. It’s a gaping hole in the production that not even Kail’s diverse casting can paper over. There’s a short leap from “We’re all Sugar” to “All Lives Matter,” which leaves one wondering exactly which public this Public Theater production is for.
Tiny Beautiful Things runs through Dec. 10 at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org.