Monday, May 2, 2022

Broadway Theater Review: Birthday Candles with Debra Messing


From left, Susannah Flood (Alice/Madeline/Ernie),Enrico Colantoni(Kenneth),Debra Messing(ErnestineAshworth),Christopher Livingston(Billy/John),John Earl Jelks(Matt/William),Crystal Finn (Joan/Alex/Beth). Photo: Joan Marcus

Birthday Candles

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. 


-- Adultery
-- 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.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York. Shifting from reviewing to producing, Yarger owns Gracewell Productions, which produced the Table Reading Series at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT. She trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run. She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She wrote reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She was a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice president and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (producer of the annual awards ceremony) and a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, serving as Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter. Yarger was a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2022 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women or people of a certain race are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide, or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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