Monday, April 18, 2022

Birthday Candles (Roundabout Theatre Company)

 By Harry Forbes

Playwright Noah Haidle’s play charts the life of its heroine Ernestine, played most engagingly by Debra Messing, from age 17 to 107, with all the myriad life passages, joys, tragedies, and vicissitudes along the way. 

The action takes place in the kitchen of Ernestine’s family house and progresses quickly from birthday to birthday over decades, as Ernestine continues to bake the traditional cake passed on by her mother, as we’ve observed in the opening scene, as her mother enjoined her to “risk your heart” and “find your place in the universe.” 

Indeed, Ernestine declares she intends to “surprise God” and be a “rebel against the universe.” But as fate has it, those grandiose plans will come to naught, when she promptly falls for the local school chum who takes her to the prom. 

We can see where the play is going from the start, especially when Ernestine acquires a goldfish named Atman, which we learn is Sanskrit for the divinity within yourself. Christine Jones’ set lit by Jen Schriever -- with its stars, moons, and various flotsam and jetsam life objects hanging from the flies in astrological patterns -- visualizes the metaphysical themes, underscored by Kate Hapgood’s music and John Gromada’s sound design.

Predictable as the play’s structure is, Haidle’s writing is so true to the stuff of life, alternately humorous and touching, and Messing so sympathetic. that the audience contentedly goes along for the very relatable ride with laughter and tears. 

There’s good work too from John Earl Jelks as Ernestine’s husband Matt (and later, their grandson William); Enrico Colantoni especially endearing as Ernestine’s neighbor and childhood pal who harbors a decades-long crush on her; Crystal Finn as amusingly neurotic daughter-in-law Joan, and later Joan’s daughter, and lastly, an unsympathetic woman; Susannah Flood as Ernestine’s mother, troubled daughter, and bubbly granddaughter Alex.

Understudy Brandon J. Pierce, filling in for Christopher Livingston as her son Billy and a kindly stranger, did a commendable job at the reviewed performance.

Vivienne Benesch directs with sympathy for the material and draws a beautifully shaded performance from Messing who, like the other cast members, ages convincingly without the aid of makeup.

There are some thematic similarities to “Our Town,” and like Thornton Wilder’s play, “Birthday Candles,” if not perhaps in that play’s classic league, manages, like all fine plays, to dramatize authentic truths about the human condition.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42 Street; 212-719-1300 or; through May 29)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l to r):Susannah Flood (Alice/Madeline/Ernie), Enrico Colantoni (Kenneth), Debra Messing (Ernestine Ashworth), Christopher Livingston (Billy/John), John Earl Jelks (Matt/William),Crystal Finn (Joan/Alex/Beth)

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