Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven: Dear theater-goers, were you addicted to the “Dear Abby” columns? Did you ever write to the columnist yourself? Do you want to spend an evening or afternoon listening to other people’s problems? If so, then Long Wharf’s current production of “Tiny Beautiful Things” is just for you. Here’s a production that Off Broadway audiences loved and so too, many Long Wharf audiences might as well. It is based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos. This production is directed by Ken Rus Schmoll.

This is not by any means a traditional play. Rather it is a collection of advice columns sent from various letter writers (actors: Brian Sgambati, Elizabeth Ramos, Paul Pontrelli) to advice giving columnist (Cindy Cheung) referred to as “Dear Sugar.” Dear Sugar would have made a better and more appropriate title than “Tiny Beautiful Things.” The latter is mentioned briefly and quickly by Sugar toward the end of the play.
In actuality, this is about the human experience in many diverse situations. Of course, we have empathy for the poor desperate souls seeking help from wherever they can get it. That includes the drug addicts, the abandoned wives, the suffering ill, the women who experience miscarriages. These are truly sad stories and each one in and of itself could be an entire story. The problem is hearing them one after another with hardly enough time to consider them seriously. The audience is bombarded with problem after problem. That “Sugar” has no psychological or mentoring background doesn’t exactly make her qualified to answer these letters sent via computer. However, she quickly acknowledges that she doesn’t have professional training and instead offers her own personal experiences in life to answer the questions these troubled people want to have answered.
While most of the questions are serious, such as the one from a woman whose husband has left her, some are humorous like the guy who wants to know when he should tell his girlfriend that he loves her. However, no one cried or laughed out loud on the night I attended the show, which indicates to me that they might have been on overload or simply bored.
Considering that Sugar reveals so much of her own experiences, past and present, it’s surprising that we still don’t know her well at the end of this presentation. I find it hard to call a series of columns a play. If you’re wondering why the set designed so realistically by Kimie Nishikawa features the exterior of a fine home complete with a picnic table and benches on the lawn, where most of this inaction takes place, one might argue that symbolically it makes the presentation more intimate. Personally, I enjoyed the set because it offered a visual relief from the monotone and/or vocal familiarity that is repeated so frequently. Actually, theaters without much of a budget could simply use a folding chair and end up with essentially the same result, but please don’t. Perhaps videos would help.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” runs through March 10.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: jgrochman@gmail.com.