Broadway review by Adam Feldman
In Noah Haidle’s thin and drippy Birthday Candles, the earnest Ernestine (Debra Messing) prepares and bakes a cake in 90 minutes of real time, as 90 years of her life pass by. A smell of baking thus wafts through the theater, providing one of the production’s few whiffs of reality. Haidle means to suggest that the specific is universal—Christine Jones’s set is a kitchen that floats in the vastness of the cosmos, with household objects hanging over it like stars—but he forgets to be specific. It’s Thornton Wilder without the wildness or the thorns.
The play’s many brief scenes all take place on Ernestine’s birthday, with sound effects that indicate the passage of a year or more. In a shapeless yellow housecoat, Messing begins as a coltish 17-year-old and ends as a rheumatic, mentally vague (and possibly British?) 107-year-old lady; the chance to rehearse this acting-school exercise in physical transformation may have been what drew her to the role, which otherwise has few distinguishing features. Birthday Candles isn’t interested in characters, and as it skips forward through the years it doesn’t have much time to develop them. People enter and exit through the revolving door of Haidle’s structure. It all plays rather like a flip book of greeting cards.
Messing knows how to make the sentimental bits work—the play elicits sympathetic “awwwww”s from the audience at several junctures—and she gets capable support from a cast that also includes Enrico Colantoni as her patiently lovestruck neighbor, John Earl Jelks as her husband, and Crystal Finn, Susannah Flood and Christopher Livingston as various descendents and others. (Finn brings a welcome breath of humor to her role as a high-strung daughter-in-law.) But Birthday Candles, directed by Vivienne Benesch, is little more than a compendium of twee pseudo wisdoms: Everything is made of stardust, forgiveness is the heart of most major religions, goldfish only have a three-second memory span, and so forth. There’s a slice of life somewhere in this oversugared and underbaked confection, but even that slice is stale.
Birthday Candles. American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Noah Haidle. Directed by Vivienne Benesch. With Debra Messing, Enrico Colantoni, John Earl Jelks, Crystal Finn, Susannah Flood, Christopher Livingston. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
Birthday Candles | Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus