Long Wharf’s Tiny Beautiful Things Is Sweet But Unsatisfying

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Tiny Beautiful Things now at Long Wharf through Sunday, March 10 is a perplexing play. Perplexing because it has had a number of productions throughout the country, but it is difficult to see why.

The play is based on a popular book of the same name; the book is a compilation letters/emails to an on-line advice columnist (Sugar) and the responses. Strangely, the press release refers to the book as a novel. In the responses she tells quite a bit about her own life as she answers questions about love, marriage, divorce, romance, jobs – the usual topics.

Aspiring authors are always told to “show not tell” – meaning don’t tell the reader/audience what happened or what characters feel, think or do, but by showing the action, events, words – let the reader or audience draw his or her own conclusions.

While in a book this can be ignored, when it comes to a play it is much more difficult. Nia Vardalos (My Big, Fat Greek Wedding) is billed as the adaptor with Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Vardalos billed as “co-conceivers.”

The play opens with Letter Writer 1 (a man) emailing a woman writer he knows to ask if she would like to take over being “Sugar” even though it doesn’t pay anything. She agrees. She is a wife, mother and writer struggling to make ends meet. Why does she put aside work on her next novel to take on this “gig”? We don’t know.

So the 80 minute performance, it is hard to call it a play, consists of three “readers” asking her questions (and sometimes challenging her) and hearing her answers. No real conversations among characters, no real context for their questions or problems and no real solutions.

We learn a lot about “Sugar” who has had a life that is packed with drama – a failed marriage, drug addiction, and much, much more. She has lived! But does that make her competent to help others through their issues?

The night I saw it, audience reaction was tepid. Some of the stories could be emotionally powerful – about the man whose 20-something son died – but we learn so little about the person that it is hard to feel anything but superficial pity or sympathy.

The three Letter Writers do not really play characters, so much as recite the letters and then listen to Sugar’s often wandering responses.

Yes, the letters cover the problems many face, but her responses seem more about her than the letter writer.

The real problem is we don’t get to know any of these people, including her. By the end, she is just a person who has had a really messed up life and survived; how we don’t know. The writers are just that, mostly anonymous people.

The cast tries diligently to get more out of the material than is really there. Cindy Cheung plays Sugar with a sincerity and practicableness that belies her past. Paul Pontrelli (Letter Writer #2), Brian Sgambati (Letter Writer #1) and Elizabeth Ramos (Letter Writer #3) do as much as they can with the material they are given.

Ken Rus Schmoll directs the piece to maximize movement in what is really a very static play.

If your mind wanders during the performance, you can admire the set by Kimie Nieshikawa of a modest house and backyard, the lighting by Yuki Nakase and the sounds of birds singing by sound designer Leah Gelpe.

This type of play is difficult to pull off; it needs as A. R. Gurney (Love Letters) or someone with enormous talent to put letters on stage and make compelling theater. The group who have tried with Tiny Beautiful Things did not succeed, though some may find it sweet.

For tickets call 203-787-4282 or visit Long Wharf..

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

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