Although Birthday Candles is Noah Haidle’s first Broadway play, he has previously been seen in all the best Off Broadway theaters (Mr. Marmalade at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre; Saturn Returns at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Smokefall at the Lucille Lortel Theatre) as well as regional theatres (Rag and Bone at the Long Wharf Theatre New Haven, Vigils at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, Persephone at the Huntington Theatre Company, Boston, etc.). His plays have been described as using magical realism, each tending to have an uncommon theatrical device. In Mr. Marmalade, four year old Lucy has an imaginary friend who is real to the audience; in Saturn Returns, we meet the protagonist Gustin at ages 28, 58 and 88 simultaneously; in Smokefall, two babies discuss life as they wait to be born).
Birthday Candles also has an unusual theatrical device: we follow Ernestine Ashford from 17 to 107 meeting her on her various birthdays that are depicted. The other characters come and go (by death, moving away, or dropping out of her life). Inspired by Thornton Wilder’s 1931The Long Christmas Dinner which also covered 90 years in one family, Wilder’s landmark play has also inspired Paul Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home and Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, as well as the breakfast table scene in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
While Vivienne Benesch’s production for the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre is beautifully done giving Debra Messing a bravura role as Ernestine Ashworth in which she is onstage throughout, the play is devoid of surprises in covering 90 years in 90 minutes in the life of one woman, too predictable to feel fresh. And once the characters are introduced, they pretty much stay the same throughout the rest of the play.
Birthday Candles is performed on Christine Jones’ elaborate pale blue Grand Rapids kitchen setting in which an actual birthday cake is cooked in the course of the play. It also has items summing up a life hanging from above as well as globes representing the phases of the moon. The play begins with Ernestine’s 17th birthday at which the tradition of baking the cake has already been long established by her mother Alice (Susannah Flood). We also meet her eccentric next door neighbor Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni) who is already in love with her and her classmate Matt, a star athlete (John Earl Jelks), both of whom are invited to her birthday party in one hour.
As the play picks up speed by skipping some years at a time, it introduces us to other family members home for her birthdays: Ernestine has married Matt to the chagrin of Kenneth, and has two children Billy (Brandon J. Pierce subbing for Christopher Livingston at the performance under review who grows up to be a musical prodigy and her unstable daughter Madeline (also played by Flood). Billy marries the awkward and nervous Joan (Crystal Finn) and they have two children Alex, short for Alexandra (again Finn) and Ernestine (called Ernie, played by Flood). We eventually meet her great-grandson William (Jelks), and both Kenneth and Matt reenter life after long absences.
While Messing and Benesch are following the playwright’s instructions that Ernestine should not visibly grow older, it instead feels like very little time is passing. Messing does not visibly age until almost the end of the play and wearing the same yellow dress and spotted blue apron, little time seems to have passed though we are told how old Ernestine is in each scene which segues naturally into the others. Messing has a great deal of personal charm and stage presence but her Ernestine is too nice. We also don’t learn enough about her other than that she has always wanted to leave Michigan and travel abroad. She remains an enigma who is first a daughter, than a mother, and then a grandmother and later a great-grandmother.
Among the events that recur throughout the play are a goldfish bowl with fish that need to be renewed almost annually always named Atman, new nail polish colors that are presented as birthday gifts year after year, and a blue hair ribbon which changes hands over the years. Except for Messing and Colantoni, the cast demonstrate their versatility playing at least two roles each, Finn and Flood playing three each. Jelks has a quiet dignity as Matt though we never even know what he grows up to do for a living or what makes him tick. Colantoni makes Kenneth seem more eccentric as the character grows older. The device of his silently taking Ernestine by surprise each time he visits her in her kitchen grows tiresome.
Finn shows tremendous range as the neurotic Joan, the straightforward Alex and the irritable neighbor Beth in the final scene. Flood is also quite different as Ernestine’s understanding mother Alice, her despondent and sullen daughter Madeleine and finally her vivacious great-granddaughter Ernie. Pierce ages in increments as Ernestine’s son Billy and later appears as the bemused neighbor John.
Toni-Leslie James’ costume changes are kept to a minimum most likely to keep the play moving along. The lighting by Jen Schriever appears to remain the same until the final scene when stars and night magically appear for an eerie, supernatural effect. Matthew B. Armentrout’s hair and wig design and Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche’s make-up design allow the actors to play multiple characters at various ages. John Gromada’s sound design marks each of the scene and time shifts with a bell or a chime.
Vivienne Benesch’s direction is smooth for both the actors and the scene transitions. However, Messing does spend a little too much time behind the kitchen work table even though she is supposed to be making a cake in each scene. Her vibrant, lively personality helps keep the play afloat even when the events are simply what you are expecting. Noah Haidle’s latest play Birthday Candles uses an interesting theatrical device but does not allow him to go as far as he might have in depicting the life of one ordinary woman.
Birthday Candles (March 18 – May 29, 2022)
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission