WTF! The 75-minute, intermissionless, advice-to-the-lovelorn “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Long Wharf is both puzzling and distressing. And not just for the character who signs letters to you as “WTF.”
What the heck to call the experience? Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, adapted by Nia Vardalos and co-conceived by her, Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail, the cockamamie concoction is surely not a play, although presented in a theater. Maybe a therapy session?
Before us is a realistic section of an ordinary house, unnecessary and over-designed as it turns out by Kimie Nishikawa, that spills into a fake grass backyard with picnic table, benches and a couple of chairs. Through one of the house’s windows, we glance someone moving about. The audience lights remain on.
A figure emerges, a woman who putters around, straightening up the yard, then sitting at her laptop. She, we learn, is a writer solicited to pen a Dear Abby-type column for no pay.
Three figures enter — two men, one woman — who recite letters from correspondents with various problems, some shattering, some trivial: losing lovers, miscarrying, becoming transgender, falling in love, recovering from rape, getting turned on by Santa Claus (!) and, more poignantly, one dealing with the loss of an adult son in a drunk-driving accident from a father who asks “How do I become human again?”
You, Sugar, answer with a litany of examples from your own life, generously sharing your experiences to somehow assuage their hurts: your contentious relationship with and death of your own mother at age 45, heroin addiction, divorce, sexual abuse, etc. Mixed in are bumper sticker slogans like “You cannot convince people to love you” or “We cannot possibly know what will manifest in our lives” or “Be about ten times more generous than you believe yourself capable of being” or my favorite, “WTF applies to everything, every day.”
What are we to make of all this? If drama is characters in conflict, where’s the conflict? The correspondents want to know your name. We, the audience, want to know you more profoundly.
Do we get answers? No.
So the evening peters out. Boredom settles in and we’re left with a skin- deep epistolary work. (For a similar but more incisive examination of the topic, see Nathaniel West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts.”)
Cindy Cheung is a sanguine, unpatronizing Sugar, with Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos and Brian Sgambati doing yeomen work as the advice seekers. Director Ken Rus Schmoll evokes distinct personalities from his actors, avoiding sentiment and feeling. Instead of having his cast as lively, interacting human beings, he has them stand in corners or hide in shadows when not speaking, or just planted facing front to tell their tales, isolating them. Leah Gelpe’s ambient sounds deserve special mention.
How do I get my 75 minutes back?