Birthday Candles is a meaningful tale of the life of Ernestine Ashworth (Debra Messing) and the characters that surround her. The play opens on her seventeenth birthday, baking a cake with her mother (Susannah Flood) and building a tradition we follow for the show’s entirety. Quickly we are introduced to her classmates; neighbor Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni) and school crush Matt (John Earl Jelks), who wish her a happy birthday before a magical chime sounds, indicating a jump in the timeline to a future birthday. While the first chime signifies one year towards Ernestine’s eighteenth birthday, the following chimes are not always so concise. Jumping multiple years (or three years consecutively in thirty seconds) is hard to follow at times; nonetheless, it is representative of time passing.
As the birthdays swirl around Ernestine, the cast cycles through their roles – five actors portraying a total of eleven characters. The adolescent angst of Madeline (Susannah Flood) and Billy (Christopher Livingston), Ernestine’s two children, is nicely balanced with the hilarious and nervous energy of Billy’s new girlfriend Joan (Crystal Finn). Later, Finn and Flood play the following generations as well. Throughout the years, life throws many things at Ernestine – a growing family, heartbreak, a new business, and illness, but she perseveres.
Between the direction of Vivienne Benesch and the set design by Christine Jones, there is a vision to create layers of fantasy within the realism of the story by playwright Noah Haidle. The scenic design is thrilling.
There are intentional backstage views of entrances and exits, lending more of an abstract atmosphere to the production. Additionally, Haidle places Birthday Candles in a nonexistent timeline, with no references to periods, wars, or current events, creating a mysterious world in which the story lives.
Perhaps this surreal quality makes the age range for the actors more believable, or at least more forgivable. Given that Messing is onstage for the entirety of the production, there is no time for hair change hair, costume, or make-up to age her from a supposed seventeen-year-old to a 100-year-old woman. Nevertheless, the effect is achieved with subtle changes – hair up, glasses donned, cardigan added, body posture pulled ever more downward by gravity, etcetera. Falling right into the world of Haidle’s universe, each actor must play outside of their age range, and despite that difficulty, the physicality is exceptional. However, the aging characters seemed more caricature-like, leading Colantoni to manifest vocal breaks and Messing to take up an old Hollywood or even British accent at times.
Birthday Candles is magical and a poignant glimpse at one family’s life. From mundane routines to chaotic family visits and the inevitability of heartache, this production is a look into the human experience. It is a reminder that life continues moving, whether we want it or not – including Ernestine.
Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre
Tuesday through Saturday at 8PM with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2PM and Sunday matinees at 3PM
227 West 42nd St
For tickets visit here
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