“Tiny Beautiful Things”

Long Wharf Theatre


“Tiny Beautiful Things,” currently playing at Long Wharf Theatre, is an amiable, insightful, yet ultimately unsubstantial play.  Actually, to call this work a “play,” in a sense, is actually misleading: when it comes right down to it, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is, more or less, a series of “Dear Abby”-type questions being astutely answered, for 75 minutes.  One keeps hoping that some kind of payoff will arrive in the show, but that never happens.

Instead, there is the character named “Sugar” (nicely played by Cindy Cheung) who runs an on-line question and answer site and the whole substance of the show is her giving good advice to three other performers, all of whom play multiple characters.  In truth, though, the word “characters” is a bit of stretch, as well: the three actors, who are as good as they can be (under the circumstances), are mostly just mouthpieces for the playwright of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” to offer extremely complex and almost unanswerable questions to Sugar, who fields every question thoroughly and sometimes surprisingly.

Truth to tell, the credits for who the writer of this show is are rather complex: in the program, it says that “Tiny Beautiful Things” is based on a book by Cheryl Strayed, adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos, and co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Vardalos.  With so many writers on board this show, it is more than a bit surprising that “Tiny Beautiful Things” is so slender and almost inconsequential.  As an evening of hearing very thoughtful advice being offered to a series of often heartbreaking questions, “Tiny Beautiful Things” works well.  But, in the final analysis, the show at Long Wharf Theatre offers no plot, no solid characters, and, sadly, does not really merit a great deal of interest.

When the audience enters the theatre, Kimie Nishikawa’s pretty and impressive set of the back of a house and a backyard is in full view.  The scenic designer has done a great job at making “Tiny Beautiful Things” nice to look at, but there is no real reason for director Ken Rus Schmoll to have chosen this particular landscape for the show.  The whole evening could have just as easily been set in a single room, for none of the actors truly needs to occupy the house and yard that this play takes place in.  Likewise, the costume design by Arnulfo Maldonado and the lighting design by Yuki Nakase are effective in making “Tiny Beautiful Things” attractive to the eye, but that’s about it.

When it comes to the four actors in the play, they all certainly do everything they can to make this show as interesting as possible.  Cindy Cheung is just right for the role of Sugar and one truly feels that she is digesting every question as it is asked of her.  As mentioned, the advice that Sugar extends to her readers is deeply insightful and complex, but not enough to fill out a whole evening of theatre.

The other three performers have even less to work with: in the program, they are referred to as “Letter Writers,” and that’s about as much substance as each actor is given.  Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, and Brian Sgambati all do quite well, as far as that goes, but none of them is truly playing a character.  This is unfortunate, since this cast certainly shows some definite talent.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about “Tiny Beautiful Things” at Long Wharf Theatre is that it is easy to sit through and it provides a great deal of inventive and smart answers to some extremely tough questions.  Beyond that, though, if one is looking for a show with strong characters and an intriguing plot, “Tiny Beautiful Things” comes up extremely short, despite the many artists that are involved.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through March 10, 2019.  For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.

Photo: (L-R): Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Elizabeth Ramos, and Paul Pontrelli

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

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