By: Paulanne Simmons
April 16, 2022: The best thing you can say about Noah Haidle’s Birthday Candles is that it manages to stuff a traditional, long and sappy soap opera, which usually goes on for years, into a messy, mushy drama that mercifully ends in under two hours. The second-best thing about the play is Christine Jones’s set design, which features a detailed kitchen (where Ernestine bakes her birthday cake every year) and up above a sky filled with household items intermingled with celestial bodies.
Director Vivienne Benesch keeps the play moving spritely through its many scenes. But she might have made the play bearable if she didn’t let her actors play to the stereotypes and try to wring out humor in the midst of all this tragedy with every device known to mankind and and sit-com writers.
The central figure in the drama is Ernestine (Debra Messing), who starts off as a starry-eyed, rebellious teenager and ends up a peevish old woman. In between she marries the wrong man, Matt (John Earl Jelks), scorning her faithful and delightful next-door-neighbor, Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni, the one bright spot in the tedium).
She also has two children, both of whom die (one by suicide at a young age), divorces the wrong man after she finds out about his 3-year affair with her best friend, discovers the joys of being a grandmother and great-grandmother, and realizes at last that she really does love the good-natured next-door-neighbor, who has been humiliated and abandoned by his own wife.
Not surprisingly, Ernestine’s happiness is short-lived. Kenneth stumbles in one day and tells Ernestine, “It’s back.” We never find out exactly what it is. But never mind, whatever “it” is, it’s deadly.
Like most playwrights who aim for the universal, Haidle has forgotten that we find the transcendent in the specific. Generic characters whose paths resemble some universal cycle of life fall flat because there is nothing about them that’s even remotely interesting.
Even given the shaky material the cast underperforms. Messing is no more believable as a loud-mouthed teenager than she is as a squeaky-voiced old lady. Everyone else, save Calatoni, plays the character type but not the character.
Throughout the play, advances in time are signaled by a cheerful little “bing,” that we know really announces some new tragedy. Eventually, Ernestine dies at the age of 107. Both she and the audience are at last released.
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42 Street
Through May 29, 2022.
Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, no intermission.
Photography: Joan Marcus