Hamilton Lovers of Wall Street, Meet Sugar. She’ll Make You Cry.By
New play has Hamilton’s director, Cheryl Strayed pedigree
On opening night, tissues, Strayed and Claire Danes on hand
To the hedge-fund managers who’ve seen "Hamilton" multiple times, it’s time for a new theatrical obsession.
Enter "Tiny Beautiful Things," which opened Wednesday night at the Public in the 99-seat Shiva Theater. Is there hip-hop? No. A grand story about the birth of nation, through the lens of an immigrant who became the first Secretary of the Treasury? Sorry.
Like "Hamilton," though, "Tiny Beautiful Things" is based on real life as captured in Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling non-fiction book by the same name. Strayed, who attended the opening, also wrote the best-selling memoir "Wild," turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
The play takes us into the cluttered home of a flannel-wearing mom in her 40s, living right about now, who on a whim -- and because a fellow writer asks her -- starts penning an online advice column under the nom de plume Sugar.
At her kitchen counter, the whooshing sound of an e-mail arriving on an Apple device brings the first intimate letters full of confusion and pain -- and three actors who don’t just read them aloud, but become the people behind them. Every now and then a comic predicament arrives (what a relief) -- something like (to paraphrase) Dear Sugar: My girlfriend gets turned on by Santa, and I happen to have a Santa suit I wear for my nephews. Should I put it on for her?
Yes, replies Sugar, played by Nia Vardalos (whom you probably won’t recognize from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"). Actually, what Sugar says is: "I say let her have it, sweet pea. Stuff that woman’s stocking the way only Santa knows how."
Vardalos adapted the book herself, faithfully sticking to the words. In her hands Sugar is attentive, kind, funny and smart. For the tough ones -- a marriage gone sour, estranged parents, when it’s time to say “I love you” -- she shares her own (that is, Strayed’s) traumatic experiences (heroin addiction, the loss of her mother to cancer, sexual abuse). The resulting answers feel mind-blowingly perceptive of, well, you -- even though it’s not about you.
And that makes Sugar a lot like Alexander Hamilton. At least that’s how Tommy Kail, the director of both works, sees it.
"What you have in Hamilton and in Sugar is two people who would say their unvarnished truth, whether you want to hear it or not," Kail said at the opening night party. "Hamilton’s obviously was his undoing. Sugar’s was her making."
"Hamilton: The Musical" began when Lin-Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of the statesman on vacation. "Tiny Beautiful Things" started when Marshall Heyman, former social columnist of the Wall Street Journal, passed the book to Kail, who passed it to Vardalos, who shaped a script out of it -- no rapping required.
One of the things that made "Hamilton" such a phenomenon when it became a hit was its unlikely premise. There’s something about "Tiny Beautiful Things" that feels inevitable, especially around the holidays. Here is so much feeling that comes with people reaching out for, and offering, help. It’s hard not to think of Christmas movie marathons.
But this fare isn’t exactly sentimental mush.
"This experience feels like church to me," Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, said to guests including Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy on opening night. "It feels like communion. It feels like the thing we are desperately in need of right now, which is a public place where we can sit together in groups, not alone in front of our screens, and reaffirm the values that make us human: the value of compassion and empathy, and as Cheryl says, the value of reaching beyond."
For now, the play itself is a tiny, beautiful thing, and the tears it elicits in the stillness of an uncomfortably small (and nonprofit) theater feel cathartic. So bring tissues. And to my compassionate friends on Wall Street, how about buying tissues for every ticket holder?