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Debra Messing evolves from age 7 to 107, portraying Ernestine Ashworth from a stubbornly optimistic child to a well-worn great grandmother in playwright Noah Haidle’s Birthday Candles. The play’s heightened exploration of what it means to live, love, and lose offers the Emmy-winning actress plenty of dramatic fodder to chew on, including a birthday cake baked in real-time, permeating the audience with the waft of a potentially delicious bite of theater that ultimately feels like it’s missing an ingredient.
No Tea, No Shade:
With the ding of a bell, the years go by. We’re all subject to it these days, with Facebook incessantly populating our feeds with its memory posts claiming, “We care about you and the memories you share here.” But the magic of Haidle’s premise eventually wears thin because, like real life, some moments we relish and others we’d prefer to forget.
Like many Broadway shows this season, Birthday Candles was originally supposed to run as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2019-20 season, with rehearsals having just begun on March 3, 2020. We all know what happened next — the events of the past two years have profoundly shaped how we value our brief time spent on earth.
In this regard, Ernestine’s journey might strike a chord as she navigates births, child-rearing, infidelity, death, and caring for a series of pet goldfish over the decades each named Atman, a Hindu term often associated with the eternal self.
Messing brings charm and grace (no pun intended) to the central character, surrounded by an ensemble of actors playing multiple roles, including a terrific turn by Susannah Flood of Hulu’s Life & Beth. But director Vivienne Benesch fails to cohesively define the play’s style, falling into Haidle’s concern noted in the script: “Younger actors playing old characters is a ripe situation for wonkiness.”
As Messing evolves past her real-life age of 53, her performance becomes leaden. A voice tinged with a distant recollection of Katherine Hepburn and weighty movement that reads more gravitational pull than geriatric unnecessarily transforms Ernestine from matriarch to caricature.
Let’s Have a Moment:
Making her Broadway debut as Ernestine’s daughter-in-law Joan (among other characters), Crystal Finn delivers a laugh-out-loud entrance filled with nervous neurosis. Desperate to make a memorable first impression, her hurricane physicality wipes out everything in its wake, punctuated by an internal dialogue in which she voices her anxieties about meeting her soon-to-be in-laws.
The Last Word:
Filled with familiar nods to family dynamics, Birthday Candles will undoubtedly elicit laughter and tears, particularly as we ponder that existential question of “What is our purpose on earth?” amid an ongoing pandemic. Dabbling in the metaphysical, Ernestine says at one point, “The pattern keeps getting stranger … Between the living and the dead.”
While the recipe may need some tweaking, there are enough heart-tugging moments in Birthday Candles’ intermissionless 90 minutes to satisfy the palate, though your appetite for seconds may wane.
Birthday Candles plays on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre through May 29, 2022.