Broadway Review: BIRTHDAY CANDLES (Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on April 21, 2022

in Theater-New York

NOT ENOUGH LAYERS IN THIS BIRTHDAY CAKE

In playwright Noah Haidle’s new play Birthday Candles, currently running at the American Airlines Theatre, television star Debra Messing ages before our very eyes. When she first enters the stage, Ms. Messing is 17. Then she’s 18. Then she’s 38. We know that because it is in the dialogue. She continues forward on this journey to her best life, including short trips to her forties, sixties, seventies and even her hundreds. Along the way, she experiences trials and tribulations that would make the biblical Job submit a resignation letter, but still she persists. Buoyed by childhood dreams, family rituals, a stated rebellious nature and extraordinary resilience, she ultimately finds satisfaction in living the everyday life of an unassuming American woman from the Midwest. That woman being the play’s main character, Ernestine Ashworth.

Debra Messing, Christopher Livingston, Susannah Flood

In examining the life of the fictional Ernestine, writer Haidle attempts to take a deep, Thorton Wilder-esque dive into the extraordinary within the ordinary. He makes a valiant attempt to excavate and reveal the submerged worthiness of simply existing, wherever that leads a person. Is there deep meaning contained within living an ordinary life? This playwright presumably believes there is. Surprising, then, to realize what is mostly missing from Mr. Haidle’s familiar writing is depth itself.

Susannah Flood,Debra Messing

In the attempt to compress an entire lifespan, Haidle uses a cursory, episodic approach in dramatizing Ernestine’s existence. Major life events and trauma are easily introduced then just as easily resolved. As in some episodic television shows or sitcoms, everything in this script is introduced, experienced, then wrapped up within a limited time frame with little to no resonances continuing into the following episodes (scenes). Specifically, the space in-between Ernestine’s yearly birthday is the frame in which conflict must appear then resolve itself. Her inner life seemingly starts fresh at each birthday.

Enrico Colantoni, Debra Messing

For instance, early in the play we learn something terrible happened to Ernestine when she was only seventeen years old and growing up in Michigan. Now nearing middle-age, Ernestine has a conversation with her son’s new bride; the young woman reveals she had the same terrible experience, not knowing Ernestine’s own tragic history. However, there is no recognition in Messing’s performance or the writing itself — which is unclear on which calendar years the play inhabits — that acknowledges that both women experienced the same traumatic event at similar stages in life.

Susannah Flood, Enrico Colantoni, Debra Messing,
Christopher Livingston, John Earl Jelks, Crystal Finn

Overall, the show is structured much like a sitcom, albeit a very good sitcom, the likes of Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Will & Grace. These shows prioritized comedy but also supplied moments of drama or pathos, much of it only surface-level due to the time constraints of the medium. In keeping with classic sitcom elements, this play takes place in a middle-class American home and centers on the family within. There’s a recurring wacky neighbor — along with other characters who are little more than exaggerated attitudes — physical comedy, a catch-phrase of sorts, running gags, clever lines and genuine laughs. And Ms. Messing as Ernestine is the level-headed one in the middle, riding herd and driving the story.

Christopher Livingston, Debra Messing

Fortunately, Ms. Messing is an expert in this fairly heightened acting style and delivers an entertaining, if not deeply felt, portrayal. What is most impressive is Ms. Messing’s technical brilliance. She can conjure any feeling at anytime — neatly providing whatever emotional requirement the scene demands in that moment — then just as easily lets it go and moves on. The overall effect, however, is not so much an experience of watching someone live a life as it is watching someone perform a life. Which is not necessarily a bad thing with a performer as capable as Ms. Messing.

Christopher Livingston, Debra Messing,
Crystal Finn, John Earl Jelks, Susannah Flood

The versatile remaining cast are all wonderfully talented and succeed in their portrayals of multiple roles, especially Crystal Finn in a hilarious turn as Messing’s anxiety-ridden, daughter-in-law Joan. Understudy Brandon J. Pierce did an admirable job stepping into the role of Messing’s judgmental son with father issues Billy. Another television favorite, Enrico Colantoni, completes the ensemble in his only assignment as the wacky neighbor, Kenneth. Mr. Colantoni is an excellent actor who creates a real human being underneath Kenneth’s comic quirks. His revelation of the return of an unnamed illness (we assume cancer) is one of the most heart-breaking, honest and moving moments of the show. In his primary role as Ernestine’s husband Matt, John Earl Jenks offers strong, effective support. Another excellent actor, he and Messing have great chemistry together and Jenks is particularly charming early on when he and Messing are high school sweethearts. Their final moments together as a couple are beautiful and sobering. Christine Jones’s eye-catching set, which incorporates a realistic kitchen looking upwards into an existential and whimsical sky, is a perfect container to hold Ernestine’s sometimes existential and whimsical life.

John Earl Jelks, Debra Messing

Director Vivienne Benesch uses broad strokes to help keep everything energetic and tightly moving forward. Her easy touch and sense of immediacy work well but seemingly gloss over opportunities to ground the characterizations and text. Also, in 2022, is it still necessary to indicate an elder female by having her stockings unknowingly gathered around her ankles? This stereotypical choice felt unnecessary and a bit demeaning. One aspect of life the play poignantly demonstrates is the experience of accumulated loss that occurs as people age. To resort to shtick as a way to indicate advanced years feels disrespectful to the Ernestine character, who has already weathered a number of painful situations by this point in the performance.

Debra Messing

Birthday Party is Noah Haidle’s play but in this Roundabout Theatre Company production, it’s Debra Messing’s party. And she puts on a pleasant, though not particularly profound, gathering filled with family, ritual, over seventy iterations of a goldfish and birthday cake. And isn’t life always better when there’s birthday cake?

Susannah Flood, Debra Messing

photos by Joan Marcus

Birthday Candles
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street
opened April 10, 2022 (reviewed April 20)
ends on May 29, 2022
for tickets, call 212.719.1300 or visit  Roundabout

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