‘Birthday Candles’ on Broadway has Debra Messing aged 90

Beauty flashes in the new play Birthday Candles, which premiered Sunday night on Broadway.

Noah Haidle’s warm but flawed dramedy takes us through 90 years of the life of the average Michigan woman with great emotion and occasional poignancy.

theater criticism

90 minutes, at the American Airlines Theater, 227 W 42nd Street.

Of course, when you condense nine decades into an hour and a half, both happiness and tragedy come faster than spam emails on a Monday. The name of Ernestine’s hometown of Grand Rapids describes her rocky, unpredictable journey.

After every victory for Ernestine (Debra Messing)—an invitation to the prom, the birth of a child, the founding of a new business—a devastating blow soon follows. Death, betrayal, and health scares are all weathered with a Midwestern steeliness that hides immense pain.

However, what really packs a punch are their smaller losses. In one scene, we speed through a series of her birthday parties in her eighties and nineties in a matter of seconds. The parties start out big and boisterous, and by the end of the sequence, no one is visiting her house. This all-too-truthful observation about aging makes you want to run and call Grandma.

Debra Messing, center, plays 90 years in the life of a woman "birthday candles" On Broadway.
Debra Messing, center, plays 90 Years in the Life of a Woman in Broadway’s “Birthday Candles.”
Johanna Marcus

The play begins when Ernestine is 17 years old and learning how to bake a birthday cake with her mother – a tradition she will repeat every year. Those first few minutes are sweet. The actress goes overboard playing a teenager, and Haidle writes in part in metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that can be hit-and-miss.

For example, your second line might be, “How many times in my soul journey have I turned my back on wonder?” That’s a bit underwhelming for the first 30 seconds of a show.

But “Birthday Candles,” set in a kitchen, shakes off the presumption when Ernestine hits middle age and has children of her own. The actors who play the rebellious Madeline and Billy, Susannah Flood and Christopher Livingston, burst in with tremendous humor and energy, cutting through the weird, stuffy “Philadelphia Story” performance that makes brass.

Impressively getting more laughs than the Will and Grace star is the hilarious Crystal Finn as Joan, Billy’s neurotic college friend-turned-wife. As she scolds herself in the third person – “You’re ruining everything, Joan! They all laugh at you!” – turning into everyone’s weird in-laws. Finn, making her Broadway debut, is a talent to watch.

Susannah Flood and Debra are starring "birthday candles."
Susannah Flood and Debra Messing in Birthday Candles.
Johanna Marcus

Every actor here except for Messing and Enrico Colantoni, who plays a boy named Kenneth who lusts after Ernestine, cleverly takes on multiple roles (John Earl Jelks plays her husband Matt, among others). They click like real family.

Brass, on the other hand, can’t quite cope with her one very challenging part. She crosses the finish line on liking alone, but one can’t help but think that Ernestine plays a meatier role than Messing did. Her youthful and older characterizations are too sitcom-silly, and the transition between ages – which should be a stellar acting showcase – is abrupt and stilted. Only sad moments in director Vivienne Benesch’s production can be devastating.

And Haidle also has his literary preferences. A goldfish named Atman (‘the Sanskrit word for itself’) sits on the kitchen table for most of the play to give some continuity, but it comes across as a gimmick. And – watch out, Julia Kind! — Messing bakes a real cake on stage. Fun, sure, but it’s terribly difficult to smell nostalgic homemade dessert when you’re wearing a medical mask.

Nonetheless, Haidle’s plays (his better Smokefall didn’t get the production it deserved when it played in New York in 2016) have a way of convincing any viewer that they were written just for her. At its best, Birthday Candles brings out our own cherished and difficult memories of the people in our lives who have come and gone.

https://nypost.com/2022/04/10/birthday-candles-on-broadway-has-debra-messing-age-90-years/ ‘Birthday Candles’ on Broadway has Debra Messing aged 90

Dais Johnston

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