In “Birthday Candles,” opening on Broadway tonight, Debra Messing portrays Ernestine, a woman who we see celebrating her birthdays from age 17 to age 107 by baking a cake. She does this in a set designed by Christine Jones of an ordinary kitchen beneath an extraordinary sky – pots and pans as if hanging on her wall, but above that a constellation of everyday possessions suspended in mid-air: an umbrella, a pillow, a vacuum cleaner, a guitar, a keyboard, a laptop, a basketball hoop, you name it. Eventually we see, thanks to a shift in Jen Schriever’s lighting, that among these ordinary objects are different phases of the moon, glowing.
The designers thus do gorgeously what first-time Broadway playwright Noah Haidle tries to do in his script, awkwardly – reveal the cosmic that exists in everyday life.
This was a specialty of Thornton Wilder in such works as the 1927 novel the Bridge of San Luis Rey, and his plays “Our Town” (1938) and “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942), a revival of which is also opening this month on Broadway.
Noah Haidle is no Thornton Wilder. “Birthday Candles,” running at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater through May 29, has its warmhearted and amusing moments, but it’s essentially a middle brow entertainment that tries too hard to be ethereal, poignant, and poetic.
If Haidle’s script isn’t as impressive as it’s trying to be, director Vivienne Benesh makes the best of it, with an appealing production that is beautifully designed and wonderfully acted by a nimble six-member cast who take an appropriately understated approach. The only wrong notes in the production are on occasion produced in the original music by Kate Hopgood, the sentimental plink, plink tinkle of the piano almost pushing me over the edge.
The heart of the production is the performance by Debra Messing, who never leaves the stage, neither changing costume nor applying makeup, as she credibly ages 90 years over 90 minutes, using a shift in voice and posture. I found Messing a totally luminous stage performer in her Broadway debut eight years ago in “Outside Mullingar,” a weird romantic comedy by John Patrick Shanley, and she lights up Broadway once again, no matter what words this playwright gives her to say.
“I am a rebel against the universe,” Ernestine says when we first meet her, at age 17, making her birthday cake under the supervision of her mother Alice (Susannah Flood.) “I will wage war with the everyday. I am going to surprise God!” You may think: This is spot-on for the absurdly heightened way a teenager might talk. But no, this is probably the playwright trying for cosmic, because even as an adult, Ernestine says: “Every year I make my birthday cake from stardust and atoms leftover from creation.” It’s actually remarkable how many of the dozen characters in the play speak in this unnatural diction.
In the next scene, it’s Ernestine’s 18th birthday, her mother has died, and she is visited by Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni), who gives her a present of a goldfish, whom he’s named Atman. “A Sanskrit word for self. But not a personal self, but as the divinity within yourself,” 18-year-old Kenneth says, and then goes on to explain the concept of the Katha Upanishad. (See what I mean?) He invites her to the prom. She says no; she’s not going to the prom. Kenneth leaves. Enter Matt (John Earl Jelks.) He too invites her to the prom. “No, thanks, there’s the world. I’m not falling in love with you or anyone else,” she tells him. “No weddings or birthings or dyings not here not me.”
If this echoes Jimmy Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” sure enough, in the next scene, it’s 20 years later, Ernestine has married Matt, they have two children of their own, Madeline (Susannah Flood again, transformed) and Billy (Christopher Livingston), and Ernestine questions what her life has become (“What have I done with my time?”) Billy is the same age Ernestine was when we first saw her, and he too regards himself as a rebel and even sounds like her:
“In the career of my soul, how many times have I turned from wonder?”
“I asked the same question when I was your age, goose.”
In a subsequent scene, Billy introduces Joan (Crystal Finn, the last of the six cast members to make an entrance.) His parents are relieved. “No son of mine is gay, I’ve said so since the beginning,” Matt says – meaning he and Ernestine suspected Billy was gay since the beginning. It was one of only a few lines in “Birthday Candles” that make it clear the play wasn’t written eighty years ago.
What follows are those weddings and birthings and dyings that the youthful Ernestine didn’t want, some tragic, as well as some arguments and betrayals. Each scene merges into the next without any blackouts (just a chime), each character ages (Jelks is especially affecting), and morphs into his or her descendant. Only Colantoni and Messing play a single role – which is a clue that Kenneth stays in her life. I’ll say no more, but it’s cute. (Colantoni, who was utterly unbelievable as a teenager, gets more and more effective the older Kenneth gets.) Ernestine turns into a grandmother, then a great grandmother, then a great great grandmother.
“The world is so big,” Ernestine says at one point, meaning she has not explored it as she had wanted.
Neither has “Birthday Candles.” The play omits any mention of world events in the 90 years we see in Ernestine’s life; nothing at all outside that kitchen. There is no sense of different eras, changing fashions or evolving mores. Perhaps this is an effort to make “Birthday Candles” seem timeless. Instead, it feels out of date. If there ever was a time when ordinary people like Ernestine and her loved ones could live in a vacuum, unaffected by the world around them, now is not that time
at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre through May 29
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Written by Noah Haidle
Directed by Vivienne Benesch.
Sets by Christine Jones, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, lights by Jen Schriever, sound by John Gromada, hair and wig design by Matthew B. Armentrout, makeup by Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche, original music by Kate Hopgood
Cast: Debra Messing as Ernestine, Enrico Colantoni as Kenneth, John Earl Jelks as Matt/William, Crystal Finn as Joan/Alex/Beth, Susannah Flood as Alice/Madeline/Ernie, and Christopher Livingston as Billy/John.
Photographs by Joan Marcus