“Birthday Candles”: American Airlines Theatre

Glenda Frank in New York City

Birthday Candles, a play by Noah Haidle, produced by Roundabout Theatre follows Ernestine from 17 to somewhere past 90 all in an hour and a half. It is filled with surfaces and snapshots. The gimmick is that Ernestine is baking her own birthday cake in each scene. Not a compelling repetition. I imagine that Haidle took his inspiration from television sit-coms where major problems are quickly resolved, and from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But Wilder had some truths to convey, primarily that we have to slow down and treasure the quiet moment and those we love. In Birthday Candles, 17 can become late 30s in two blinks of a scene.


Enrico Colantoni and Debra Messing. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.


Debra Messing as Ernestine is on stage from girlhood fantasies to old-age nostalgia.   While most of us know her from her television hit Will and Grace, most of the comic turns and nuances we’ve come to expect from her were not elicited by director Vivienne Benesch who seemed more focused on getting the aging right rather than character insight – or even fun. So why this review of Birthday Candles? Because there are three stand-out performers who should be applauded and because there were opportunities for depth that were not probed.

I could say the acting was Brechtian; that clearly the actors were pretending to be a certain age or temperament. But Brechtian acting is about teaching the audience to see something they have overlooked. Messing’s voice did change as she aged; her body took different postures. On the other hand, John Earl Jelks as Matt, seemed to be a kid when he asked Ernestine to the prom. When they married and had children, he came across as a serious young husband but fun and loving. Caught cheating on his wife in middle age, he brought us guilt and controlled rage that his wife would throw him out after a 35-year marriage. And here’s where the play, like a bad souffle, totally collapsed. They did not discuss anything. When he returns years later, invited by his granddaughter to his ex-wife’s birthday, he seems beaten down, almost like a homeless man seeking shelter. And later his palsy, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, is believable. His arc is complete and he carried us with him emotionally.


Susannah Flood and Debra Messing.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.


Crystal Finn (Broadway debut) as Joan, Ernestine’s daughter-in-law, is a natural comedienne, from her yelling aloud at herself after knocking kitchen utensils all over the room and fumbling with the pick-up, to her ineptitude with the crying baby. She managed to differentiate Joan from Alex and from Beth (two other family members that she played) and to hold the stage.

Enrico Colantoni as Kenneth remains our emotional barometer. He asks Ernestine to the prom, declaring that he has loved her since he first saw her at the age of seven.  Ernestine only has eyes for Matt. Kenneth is a clown, a pudgy aging man in short pants who is overly precise with numbers and brings his lady love odd gifts, like a single goldfish named atman, the Hindu word for one of the individual souls that make up the Living God (the Atman). Ernestine rejects the fish until he explains that should it be returned, it will become food for other creatures at the pet shop. Kenneth breaks our hearts when he reads his wife’s parting note, claiming she married him only for pity. A decade or so late, he is still at it, kneeling slowly on aging arthritic knees to propose.  This is a good scene.


Christopher Livingston and Debra Messing. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.


It’s hard to watch dramatic opportunities open and close. When Matt returns to Ernestine, he praises her for opening a baking business with multiple shops. That’s a big deal, but it only gets the one or two sentences. Yet at the opening of the play, Haidle has the protagonist bragging about making a mark for herself, carving out her place. “I’m a rebel against the universe,” she declares. “I’m going to surprise God.”

Ernestine seems chosen by the playwright to suffer and fail. Kenneth is her late-life compensation, but we don’t know enough about her marriage to the charming Matt to understand why Kenneth is one true love. I could go on, but I’ve offered the strong performers their praise. It’s enough.