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Tiny Beautiful Things
Photograph: Joan MarcusTiny Beautiful Things

Theater review: Tiny Beautiful Things will break your heart at the Public Theater

By
Helen Shaw
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If someone syncopates a reply in just the right rhythm, we laugh—even when it's not a joke. Tears, it turns out, are something similar. Watching the awkwardly constructed but incredibly moving Tiny Beautiful Things at the Public, I realized my powers of analysis were being drowned out, shouted down, overwhelmed. The cadence of compassion wrings weeping out of us.

Nia Vardalos adapted her play from the book of the same name, a collection of online advice columns that Cheryl Strayed wrote for The Rumpus as “Dear Sugar.”Director and co-conceiver Tommy Kail emphasizes that Strayed/Sugar is a mom, so Vardalos-as-Sugar wanders Rachel Hauck's cluttered-house set in her pajamas, cleaning a bit or packing school lunches. Sugar's advice does always come from her own experience, not some overarching self-help theory: A writer tries to come to terms with a child's loss, so Sugar responds with a story about her own mother's death.

My brain kept protesting that these multiple “translations” (Internet to book, book to stage) weren't working: Vardalos is rather too cool; Strayed's language is better on the screen/page; the show's convention of having letter writers (Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso and Natalie Woolams-Torres) ask questions, then nod in grateful acceptance as Sugar responds can be annoying. But Strayed's advice knocks you down with its avalanche of kindness. Kail's staginess seems wrong here, and whenever I could pull myself together, I had tart opinions about the production. But then Sugar would pour her balm over some other sufferer, and I (and the sniffling audience and the actors too) would sink back, gratefully, into the swells of emotion.

Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Nia Vardalos. Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. Directed by Thomas Kail. With Vardalos, Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso and Natalie Woolams-Torres. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through Dec 31. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Helen Shaw on Twitter: @Helen_E_Shaw    

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