Birthday Candles by Noah Haidle, directed by Vivenne Benesch allows Debra Messing to shine as the aging Ernestine who moves from 17 to 107. As she traditionally bakes her birthday cake, over the years, first taught by her mom Alice (Susannah Flood), she gradually understands that she can only realize her dreams by being herself. And all along, getting married, raising a family, getting a divorce and finding the love of hr life, she has achieved her goal, taking her rightful place in the universe.
Haidle’s Birthday Candles, at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, is poetic and complex with multiple themes. The most salient one focuses on Ernestine’s spiritual journey as the “every woman” sustaining emotional pain, trauma, loss, moving from weal to woe and finally reconciling a belated love with great joy in her 80s. As she moves quickly through time, she “looks through a glass darkly” without understanding, until she finally accepts the love and divinity in herself in her relationships with her family and partners. By her 107th year, she misses everyone and wishes them back as she has each time she gives the one passing (mother, daughter, son, grandchildren, etc.) up to the cosmos. Finally, her family spiritually appears and it would seem waits “in the wings” for her to accompany them on the next leg of her journey with them.
Haidle’s conceit about time and life’s passage in the “twinkling of an eye” (in the play 90 years in 90 minutes with some decades speeded up and others truncated) is most wonderful holistically as the characters live in the moments which they can’t fully appreciate. In this play the adage “life is short” is on steroids. Indeed, living one’s life while observing it alters it (a very rough comprehension of the Uncertainty Principle).
Thus, dramatically the play magnifies each character, present in their most vital of moments with Ernestine to heighten her life’s purpose in being herself, a mosaic of moments which come together at the conclusion. It is then that the audience and Ernestine reflect upon her life’s work and the revelation of Ernestine’s beauty is clarified. Of course, at that juncture when her work is finished, she moves to another realm in the starlit space/time continuum.
With the exception of Messing’s Ernestine, the actors portray multiple generationaly linked roles from mother Alice (Susannah Flood), to great grand daughter Ernie (Susannah Flood) with husband Matt (John Earl Jelks), son Billy (Christopher Livingston), daughter (Susannah Flood), grandchildren and forever sweetheart Kenneth (impeccably played by Enrico Colantoni). All these escort Ernestine through the years.
The dialogue and sounding of a bell for the passage of time clues us in to each generation as they come to celebrate Ernestine’s birthday while she bakes her plain butter cake over the 90 minutes of the play. Though birthday candles are never placed on top of the cake, nor is it iced, the title is enough. Indeed, Messing as Ernestine is both the icing and the candles, her soul and spirit, which are invisibly lit for eternity.
Importantly, every word of the dialogue is paramount and must be heard to appreciate Haidle’s depth of meaning, the poetry, the wisdom, the beauty and the sweet golden threads that bind from one generation to the next. In the performance that I saw (Wednesday evening), sometimes the dialogue was muffled and the words, not projected, slung together like a nondescript house salad without dressing. This was tragic because Haidle’s play is brilliant and achingly timeless and heartfelt. The humor is multi-layered and ripe. The conflicts which (if the actors don’t enunciate precisely) appear rather sparse. However, upon review, they are exceedingly well drawn and acute in each twinkle of time over the fast procession of years that transpose and spool Ernestine’s life.
Messing who is an accomplished TV (“Will & Grace”), film (The Mothman Prophecies) and stage actress (Outside Mullingar) is in her glory onstage throughout with “no rest,” (a meme in the play), a veritable tour de force. She is strongest and most poignant in the section of the play when Ernestine reaches a ripe seventy. She has negotiated life on her own terms, has become an entrepreneur, traveled to far flung places and is only taking care of herself. It is then when her granddaughter Alex (Crystal Finn) introduces the next surprising chapter in her spiritual evolution and she learns about reconciliations and renewals, and the fruition of faith and love.
Enrico Colantoni and Messing create the emotional grist for this section of the play which brings a sigh of relief to audience members and shouts from her children. They are truly stunning together and force us to look at those elements that Haidle insists upon in Birthday Candles, the spiritual, the ineffable, the timeless, the eternal. Their relationship which has been growing unseen for Ernestine, always felt to Kenneth, is breathtakingly conceived by the playwright, authentically manifested by Messing and Colantoni. It is the high-point, and Haidle has cleverly made us wait for it, so when it comes we are happily stunned and gratified.
Kudos to the cast when they projected (Colantoni and Messing had no problem) and the creatives: Christine Jones (set design), Toni-Leslie James (costume design), Jen Schriever (lighting design), John Gromada (sound design), Kate Hopgood (original music).
Birthday Candles is on limited engagement. See if before May 29th when it closes. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2021-2022-season/birthday-candles/performances