By Noah Haidle
Directed by Vivienne Benesch
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
Through May 29, 2022
By Lauren Yarger
A full-of-angst, self-esteem-needy teen excited to embrace the rest of her life and make her mark on the world bursts into her mother’s kitchen where the traditional birthday cake is being baked to mark her 17th. What emerges at Roundabout Theatre Company is years and years of Birthday Candles as Ernestine Ashworth (Deborah Messing) remembers her life and wonders whether she has done with it all that she could.
The play, by newcomer Noah Haidle, is told through flashbacks and flash forwards – 90 years in 90 minutes -- all anchored by Ernestine’s birthdays from 17 to 107. She experiences being a daughter, a girlfriend, a wife, a mother, a friend, an aunt, a mother-in-law, a widow, a second wife, a grandmother, a great grandmother, and a great-great-grandmother and all the joy and sorrow that go with each role a woman can play.
At 17, she is on the cusp of womanhood, excited about the possibility of romance with Matt (John Earl Jelks) and rebuffing the undying devotion of geeky Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni) who brings her a goldfish for her birthday. Caught up in her own thoughts, she misses signs that her mother, Alice (Susannah Flood), isn’t in the best of health, but they do the cake-baking ritual that has been handed down through the generations:
“Eggs, butter, sugar, salt. The humblest ingredients. But when you turn back and look far enough, you see atoms left over from creation.” Sort of like life….
Flash forward to other birthdays. Marriage to Matt. The birth of a daughter, Madeline, (also played by Flood) and a son, Billy (Christopher Livingston) and his marriage to whacky Joan (a very funny Crystal Flynn). Grandchildren and great-grandchildren along with numerous replacement goldfish over the years play out in the kitchen. Besides the cake-baking tradition, many phrases as passed form generation to generation. Love, betrayal, forgiveness, grief – all the parts of life are mixed together in a moving, thought-provoking tale skillfully put in motion by Director Vivienne Benesch.
Messing, know mostly to TV fans from Will & Grace doesn’t appear to change all that much, really, for the younger characters, but later transforms nicely into elderly Ernestine and back to a younger version of herself. The ensemble is strong and you just can’t help but root for Kenneth.
The 90 minutes are presented without intermission.
This limited edition won’t get to blow out candles -- it runs only through May 29 at American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd St., NYC.
-- Mature themes. Thing PG 13
-- God's name taken in vain
Roundabout is requiring proof of full COVID-19 vaccination with an FDA- or WHO-authorized vaccine for our audiences—as well as artists and staff. We will require proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test for those who are unvaccinated due to a disability or religious belief. https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/site/tickets-and-policies/terms-and-conditions/covid-19/