Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tiny Beautiful Things ** C

Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns from The Rumpus, an online website, was a bestseller. Actor Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) thought it would be a good idea to adapt it for the stage and enlisted Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail to assist with the concept. Kail (Hamilton) also directs. The result is this sporadically involving 80-minute production now at the Public Theater. An epistolary play with no direct interaction between characters is not an easy thing to bring off, but it can be done (cf. Love Letters). Here, however, it is an unequal exchange with one person responding to questions from several others. Three actors — Phillip James Brannon (Nat Turner in Jerusalem),  Alfredo Narciso and Natalie Woolams-Torres — play a variety of people with a variety of problems, large and small, who write to Sugar for advice. Sugar differs from the typical advice columnist by her willingness to share her own painful experiences with her readers. Nardalos portrays her with no-nonsense directness, folding laundry or packing school lunches as she speaks. Each time one of the other actors appears, he or she is playing a different person so there is little opportunity to build a character. One notable exception is an extended scene in which Narciso plays a man whose son has been killed by a hit-and-run driver; he is absolutely wrenching. While the questions more or less resemble ordinary speech, Sugar’s answers come out in polished prose. I would have preferred reading them at my leisure over hearing them on a stage. Rachel Hauck’s set of Strayed’s kitchen and living room looks so lived in that I found myself studying its details when my interest lagged. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes suit the characters well. Thomas Kail’s direction tries hard to enliven a basically static situation. I admired all the good intentions, but I found the effort ultimately misguided.

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