Tiny Beautiful Things: Entertainment, Emotion, and Advice
Is everything adaptable?
It’s a fair question. With the sheer amount of consumable entertainment in New York City, let alone the rest of the United States and the world as a whole, it’s no wonder that writers, for both the stage and the screen, are looking toward books, news articles, TV interviews, and other random stories -- both true and fictional -- to supplement what seems to be a drought in originality. Of course, non-traditional storytelling methods, such as Chris Ware’s odd graphic novel Building Stories -- a collection of printed works, all housed in a box set, that looks more like a complicated board game than a novel -- would definitely be tough, nigh impossible, to bring to life with actors. But even more traditional stories seem to be stuck in the pre-adaptation stage that the media industry calls “development hell.” Watchmen, a 1986 limited comic series written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, was sitting there for the better part of two decades until Zack Snyder directed an adaptation in 2009. Other projects, such as an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s uproariously funny novel A Confederacy of Dunces, never even make it out; in fact, due to the deaths of several key names attached to the project -- including John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley -- the project has been abandoned, with directors such as Steven Soderbergh considering the whole thing cursed. The problem of adaptation works the other way from movies as well, due mostly to scope. A movie with lots of action and chase sequences would be a fun watch, but it would be hell to adapt for the stage.
And so we return to our question: is everything adaptable?
Or, more specifically, how the heck did Nia Vardalos take a book of advice column excerpts and turn it into one of the most emotional plays I’ve seen?
Tiny Beautiful Things, adapted for the stage by Vardalos and directed by Thomas Kail, was based on a book by Cheryl Strayed, documenting the various advice columns she published for two years under the pseudonym “Sugar.” Throughout the play, Vardalos, who also plays Sugar, gives advice and fields questions to her readers, portrayed onstage by Hubert Pont-Du Jour, Teddy Cañez, and Natalie Woolams-Torres. This is wherein I expressed my hesitation upon initially seeing Tiny Beautiful Things and my skepticism in Vardalos’ adaptation of the book -- namely, the lack of a cohesive narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Vardalos; she’s a fine actress and screenwriter -- heck, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which she wrote, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 75th Academy Awards -- but how exactly do you squeeze a narrative out of an advice column? The only thing I could think of is having her wander around an apartment reading from a computer for an hour and a half.
Well, I was half right. The play is set in Strayed’s apartment for the duration of its 90 minute stage time, but Vardalos spends almost no time by her computer, save for the very beginning where she accepts the name and email of Sugar from the previous columnist who used the pseudonym. From there, Pont-Du Jour, Cañez, and Woolams-Torres waltz into and wander around her apartment, as if the authors of the letters were actually there -- raiding her fridge and cabinets for food, putting away her laundry, and sitting at her dining room table. While this keeps things simple, in that it solves the problem I addressed earlier of the play only having Vardalos read from a laptop, it has an added layer. Having the other characters invade her apartment is an overall statement about how these people entered and affected Strayed’s life the moment she took on the name Sugar. Quite literally the moment she sends a message back accepting the pseudonym, the questions start pouring in, and Pont-Du Jour, Cañez, and Woolams-Torres make their home in both Strayed’s apartment and mind.
The questions and answers make up the meat of this play. Sometimes they’re outlandish -- one advice seeker in particular asks “What the f***?” at various points throughout the play, which Strayed eventually answer. Other times, they’re standard love-and-marriage advice column fare. A good portion of the questions, though, come from people in dark places in their lives. A woman who had a miscarriage can’t stop thinking about what her daughter could have been. A transgender man is torn between forgiving his parents, who have apologized for their previous treatment of him, or ignoring them and moving on with his life. A woman who survived sexual assault wants to know when to bring the topic up with her new boyfriend. These letters are where the play bares its emotional fangs, as Strayed answers these deeply personal questions with stories of her own life. Whereas other advice columnists that I’ve glanced at in the past, such as Ask Amy (a famous advice column, run by American journalist Amy Dickinson), are sanitized answers to equally sanitized questions, Strayed, through Sugar, allows her raw emotion to pour out into her advice. She leaves no detail untold in her stories, which range from a teenager who stole a makeup bag from her yard sale to her own experiences of sexual assault from her grandfather as a child. Every detail, that is, except her name. Every question begins “Dear Sugar…” and she ends every answer with “...Yours, Sugar.” A few readers question her about this, and she responds accordingly -- to one who asks what a picture of her would look like, she tells them that it would be her naked, covering only her face -- because to her, it doesn’t matter if she’s Cheryl Strayed or Amy Dickinson or even Sigmund Freud. The only thing that matters is that she is Sugar, and that Sugar gives advice which can help the troubled reader for the better.
Due to the vast range of questions that Strayed received and that Vardalos decided to put into the play, some of the back-and-forth between Strayed and the readers was quite funny. I have conflicting thoughts about this. On the one hand, I appreciated the moments of levity in the play, as they helped make the more dramatic letters that Strayed received more digestible. However, at points, I felt that the shifts in tone were a little too steep -- going from a man talking about his girlfriend’s Santa fixation to another man asking how to deal with his narcissistic and abusive father was somewhat jarring. There could have been a bit more of a buffer between the comedic letters and the more emotional ones. Also, the play had a bit of a slow start. Vardalos shows Strayed going about beginning her day in somewhat intricate detail -- she eats a bit of breakfast, does the dishes, and stands around rubbing her eyes for a minute or two before finally opening her laptop -- which went on, in my opinion, for about a minute too long. Otherwise, though, I couldn’t find fault in the production.
My advice? Watch this play. Read the book, even. If not to empathize and find some comfort or maybe advice in an anonymous individual who went through the same problem that you went through, to see that while not everything can be adapted, there are stories that transcend the limitations of adaptation to share their messages with the world. And one day, we might even get that A Confederacy of Dunces movie. Fingers crossed.