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Off Broadway Review: Nia Vardalos Plays Cheryl Strayed in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’

Variety logo Variety 12/8/2016 Frank Rizzo
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Feeling confused, stuck, crushed and desperate? (Who isn’t these days?) Then “Tiny Beautiful Things,” the stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s collection of empathetic advice columns that she wrote for an on-line literary magazine, might just be your theatrical balm. This well-staged adaptation, starring Nia Vardalos and directed by Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”), will attract the popular writer’s many fans who have passed on her book to friends and relatives, and should also be a sought-after title for other venues looking for a theatrical hug in turbulent times.

Some may find the show little more than a multi-character, well-written Ted Talk, and its rhythms and roundabout anecdotes too predictable. There’s a certain wariness that comes from being in a room too long — even at a mere 80 minutes — with someone who has all the answers.

Strayed, who wrote the advice column under the pseudonym Sugar, is no Ann Landers, who gave practical counsel, snap-out-of-it slaps and directions to experts in the field. Instead Strayed offers insight by way of her own personal experiences, which are just as intimate, painful and harrowing as the letter-writers’ own.

Conceived by Vardalos (who stars as Strayed), Kail and Wall Street Journal columnist Marshall Heyman, the production is a straight-forward presentation of those Q and A’s from the columns. Epistolary exchanges on stage are always a challenge to make theatrically satisfying — wouldn’t books-on-tape work just as well?

But Kail creates a graceful, fluid, low-key dynamic that has those letter-writers — all experiencing pain, grief, anger and shame — inhabiting Sugar’s everyday world, always part of her consciousness, memory and work-a-day life. The stories they tell, the anguish they feel and the questions they ask are quiet cries for help, and Sugar is there for them because she is one of them. Vardalos (writer and star of the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) gives her character an easygoing, grounded quality, an unforced likability and an open, forgiving heart.

Three actors (Phillip James Brannon, Natalie Woolams-Torres and Alfredo Marciso, especially fine) give voice to the various advice-seekers as they drift around Rachel Hauck’s thoroughly lived-in living room and kitchen. (This is a clearly a woman with kids and chaos in her life.)

As Strayed grapples with their seemingly unanswerable questions, she goes about her family activities: packing lunches for the kids, cleaning up, folding laundry. The letter writers make themselves at home, too. This is a person like them, after all, sharing in intimate detail the dark places she has been, too.

Sugar’s approach to their queries about their own problems — sometimes traumatic (parental rejection, a miscarriage, sexual assault, the death of a child), sometimes lighthearted (whether it’s OK to have sex dressed as Santa Claus) — is seen through the prism of her own troubled, complicated life with drugs and sexual abuse.

Some of her autobiography was revealed in brutally honest detail in her 2012 bestseller “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” which later became a film that earned Reese Witherspoon an Oscar nomination. That same literate, painfully honest self-examination is reflected throughout “Tiny Beautiful Things.” In this shared experience, love and forgiveness is all — and sometimes, for many, just that is enough.

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