In what has been thus far a very uneven season at the Long Wharf Theatre, their current offering, “Tiny Beautiful Things”, will do nothing to raise the bar. This is a puzzling, very questionable choice for a theatre that needs to get back on track. Fast.
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and adapted for the stage by the actress Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), “Tiny Beautiful Things” is not so much a play as chicken soup for the soul. It reenacts, with live actors, actual letters written to an advice columnist named “Sugar” (Cindy Cheung) who then, in extended, often endless monologues, offers platitudes and bromides for every issue presented. The topics range from post-partum depression and bad marriages to rape, suicidal thoughts and kleptomania. Set in Sugar’s suburban back yard, the columnist sits at her laptop as three other actors (the hard-working Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos and Brian Sgambati) play a variety of ages and types as they volley questions to her. The whole exercise lasts what seems to be an interminable 75 minutes with little dramatic thrust or purpose. There is also no plot and no character development. It’s like anti-Playwriting 101.
Some letters, obviously, have more power than others. Late in the evening a grieving father (Sgambati) explains in wrenching detail how the death of his son has given him little reason to live. It’s a powerful monologue, but for what reason? To feel bad? Sugar’s advice is good but it no doubt all works better in book form rather than the stage. It’s probably the highlight of a play that really isn’t a play at all. It’s self-help therapy and not always very interesting or well-acted. And it doesn’t help that the three actors playing multiple roles are not exactly versatile. Then again, pity Mr. Sgambati who, while getting the play’s best monologue, does have to yell “WTF!” at the top of his lungs three separate times during the evening.
Miss Cheung has the majority of the heavy-lifting here and, to her credit, does as well as one could expect given the repetitive material. Ken Rus Schmoll’s pedestrian direction certainly doesn’t help. He continually rotates the actors around Sugar in a triangular shape and then gives Cheung some mindless business dashing into her home to get beers for everyone. And speaking of that home, what exactly is its purpose? Although beautifully designed by Kimie Nishikawa, It is so rarely used that one is led to conclude that the artists involved knew they had a nothing burger of a play on their hands, so decided to put all their resources into a really impressive set so audiences will at least have something to look at. Long Wharf’s supporters deserve better.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through March 10. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.