There are some things in life you can count on. Birthdays will tick by like clockwork, a good cake recipe won’t fail and the young will chase their future while elders reminisce. But combining staple observations about everyday existence, as the playwright Noah Haidle does with a cosmic hand in “Birthday Candles,” does not guarantee they’ll rise into more than mollifying fluff.
The fine line between distilling so-called ordinary life and whipping up airy clichés is all but dissolved in this replay of one woman’s birthday over the course of many decades. From year to year, we’re always in the hours before the party, when Ernestine (earnestly played by Debra Messing) is preparing the golden cake that her mother teaches her to make on her 17th birthday.
“In the career of my soul, how many times have I turned from wonder?” asks a lofty young Ernestine. “I am a rebel against the universe,” she declares, before settling down with her high school sweetheart (James Earl Jelks) in the house where she grew up, having kids who likewise insist they’ll never be like their parents, and so he. A chime indicates leaps forward in time – ding! Ernestine is 29 years old, 50 years old, old enough that she loses count, as loved ones come and go.
Symmetry and shorthand govern Haidle’s design, as they do many over-frosted confections. The actors loop forward to play succeeding generations of Ernestine’s family, as scenes between the young and old trace familiar patterns, often overtly pandering to audience recognition. (“Was I ever so young, so self-involved?” Asks one character who was precisely that in a previous scene. “Yes,” the woman next to me actually responded out loud.)
There’s a truthfulness to the churn and cycle of “Birthday Candles” as a parable of aging. What is life but a series of rituals, and the ache of love and loss and “what ifs”? There’s a tenderness, too, to Haidle’s reflections about seizing moments even as they pass. And sprinkles of humor brighten the overall contrivance of the play’s structure (Crystal Finn makes a whole meal of Ernestine’s daughter-in-law Joan).
But Haidle’s characters are at times so self-conscious about their place in the world that they cease to believably inhabit them. Where a more expansive drama might demonstrate philosophical resonance, here those aspirations are spelled out as briefly as in icing (“Time is a lie”) or in wordy and rushed asides about astrophysics.
The Roundabout Theater Company production, from director Vivienne Benesch, also makes a broad visual case for the play’s reverberations beyond the earthly confines of Ernestine’s kitchen. The stuff of life seems to have exploded above the room, with a crowded assortment of objects (an umbrella, a rocking horse, a teddy bear) suspended in midair (set design is by Christine Jones). Amid them hangs a progression of the moon in orbit, a hammer pounding the metaphor home.
Messing has the daunting task of playing from age 17 to death’s door, and her performance is most grounded and credible somewhere in the middle. The exaggerated quality to both her teenage and elderly Ernestine render them closer to caricature, or to the concept of being young and old rather than how those stages color a particular person. If that’s the idea, there’s a distancing to this characterization that blunts the play’s clearly intended emotional impact.
Because what begins sweetly enough only grows treacly and saccharin the longer it lingers on the palate. The blatantly tear-jerking final scenes manage to feel both overwrought and too easy, tugging at low-hanging heartstrings until they’re thin as a wick.
Despite the play’s universe-skimming ambitions, there’s also a narrowness to its imagination of what life can and could be. Ernestine follows a path of least resistance; though she has regrets, “Birthday Candles” isn’t a critique of conformity, or the broader social forces that led her there (she is a woman happily baking a cake, year after year, for more than half a century, after all) . The play rather reinforces the heteronormative fantasy that fulfillment comes in recognizable forms – just be careful which man you choose.
People are desperate not to feel alone. “Birthday Candles” aims to satisfy that hunger while ultimately pointing out that we’re all going to die that way, anyway. It’s a bitter, if obvious, pill served with enough sugar to rot a full mouth of teeth.
“Birthday Candles” opened at the American Airlines Theater on April 10, 2022.
Creative: Written by Noah Haidle; Original Music by Kate Hopgood; Directed by Vivienne Benesch; Scenic Design by Christine Jones; Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by John Gromada.
Producer: Roundabout Theater Company.
Cast: Debra Messing, Enrico Colantoni, John Earl Jelks, Crystal Finn, Susannah Flood and Christopher Livingston.