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Broadway Reviews

Birthday Candles

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 10, 2022

Birthday Candles by Noah Haidle. Directed by Vivienne Benesch. Set design by Christine Jones. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Jen Schriever. Sound design by John Gromada. Hair and wig design by Matthew B. Armentrout. Make-up design by Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche. Original music by Kate Hopgood. Voice coach Kate Wilson.
Cast: Debra Messing, Enrico Colantoni, John Earl Jelks, Crystal Finn, Susannah Flood, and Christopher Livingston.
Theater: American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street (Between 7th and 8th Avenues)

John Earl Jelks and Debra Messing
Photo by Joan Marcus
Noah Haidle's Birthday Candles, opening tonight at Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre, invites us into the world of the imagination even before the play begins. That's all thanks to set designer Christine Jones's fanciful overhead display. Floating above the earthbound set are seemingly random objects that, taken together, represent the flotsam and jetsam of a lifetime of memories: a rocking horse here, a doll house there, a guitar, a basketball hoop, an umbrella, and many more. In the soft glow of Jen Schriever's dreamy lighting, they suggest an illustration from one of Maurice Sendak's storybooks; "In the Night Kitchen" comes to mind. Sadly, however, as the play itself unfolds, nothing quite lives up to the promise of those pre-show glimpses into its central character.

That would be Ernestine (Debra Messing), whose life we follow (at least within the confines of her kitchen) from the age of 17 to 107. Ninety years in 90 minutes, laid out in short scenes that offer glimpses into the comings and goings of boyfriends, spouses, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, all without reference to the outside world. Through health and sickness, joy and sadness, love and loss, Ernestine clings to the talismans and rituals that provide her with a steady anchor when so much else is unpredictable and unalterable.

One of these rituals is the baking of the annual birthday cake, a nearly sacramental rite that was begun by Ernestine's grandmother, its recipe mostly unchanged year after year. When we first meet the teenage Ernestine, it is her mother (Susannah Flood) who is in charge, bustling about the kitchen while her exuberant daughter flitters about, declaring, "I am a rebel against the universe!" For now, that rebellion is mostly confined to preparing for tryouts for a feminist production of King Lear at her high school. Still, Mom knows what really matters and insists that Ernestine learn to make the cake. "Soon you'll have a family, and I'd like you to remember something of me."

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ernestine, who expects great things of and for herself ("I am going to surprise God!"), balks at the notion of domesticity. But as the years zip by, it seems that God surprises her instead as she joins the ranks of the typical, marrying her high school sweetheart (John Earl Jelks), raising a couple of children, and going through some rough patches and painful losses along the way.

It is only late in life that Ernestine becomes something more than someone's daughter, someone's wife, someone's mother. And when that happens, when she remakes herself into an entrepreneur and independent world traveler, the play expands beyond Hallmark moments. At long last, we are able to celebrate with her rather than observing the mundane activities of her interactions with family members who come and go. There are some truly moving scenes in the last third of the play, including a late-life romance that has been a long time coming, between Ernestine and her eternally patient beau Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni, the joyful heart of the play), possibly God's last wondrous surprise for her.

Still, much of the play consists of a ticking off of biographical events. By necessity or by design, it is incumbent on members of the audience to find a personal connection to the ups and downs of Ernestine's life. Debra Messing generally has too little to work with, only coming into her own as Ernestine herself comes into her own. The rest of the cast, playing multiple roles, all do what they can with their parts, but mostly they are stuck with one-dimensional attributes, and neither they nor director Vivienne Benesch are able bring them fully to life.

Possibly Birthday Candles would do better in a more intimate space. But the playwright, whose quirky dark comedy Mr. Marmalade from 2005 also lacked the kind of rich character development that would greatly benefit Birthday Candles, relies too heavily on sketchy shortcuts to get us to care a great deal about the woman at the center.