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Theatre in Review: Birthday Candles (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)

Susannah Flood, Debra Messing. Photo: Joan Marcus

The folks at the Roundabout are in a Thornton Wilder mood these days, thanks to Birthday Candles, which covers ninety years of its heroine's life in ninety minutes. Her name is Ernestine, and, at 17, she announces, "I am a rebel against the universe. I will wage war with the everyday. I am going to surprise God!" So much for that proposition; instead, she spends each successive birthday in her kitchen, whipping up her own cake. (It's supposed to be a treasured ritual, but you'd think somebody would offer to take her out for dinner at least once, for pity's sake.) As the years whiz by, Ernestine becomes, in rapid successions, a wife, a mother twice over, a divorcée, a businesswoman, and, once again, a wife. It's the passage of time as depicted in microcosm. Indeed, so closely does Birthday Candles follow the model of a certain Wilder play that a more suitable title might be The Long Christmas Dinner: Special Bake-Off Edition.

"Have I wasted my life?" asks the adolescent Ernestine. She hasn't done so yet, but the future will pose that question more than once. When we first meet her, she is a precocious creature, overdramatic and hell-bent on being someone notable. To that end, she is concentrating on her upcoming performance in the title role of King Lear -- "a feminist interpretation," she is quick to add. Even so, her lust for life is easily diverted. Expressing a concern that could come from Our Town's Emily Webb, she muses that "two-hundred-fifty babes are born every second, fifteen thousand every hour. In another week, two-and-a-half-million. How am I supposed to reconcile my individual existence against the weight of those numbers?"

Well, dear, it's a losing battle. As Ernestine bakes her way through life, Birthday Candle focuses on the everyday joys and tragedies that follow: the thrill of a new child, the shock of a spouse's infidelity, the unexpected deaths of loved ones, and the surprise of late-in-life romance. As the decades pass, history repeats itself: Young people furiously insist on their uniqueness before drifting into unremarkable lives. Children insult their parents, only to have the same words thrown up at them by the next generation. One pet goldfish is replaced by dozens of successors, cueing many musings about brief lives and short memory spans. And King Lear is repeatedly invoked. Ernestine's life may or may not be limited, but her frame of reference certainly is.

Playwright Noah Haidle is intent on a contemporary reframing of Wilder's philosophy, arguing that even at its most banal, life passes far too quickly for us to grasp its meaning and mysteries. Fair enough, and other plays -- including Dan LeFranc's The Big Meal and Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home -- have effectively riffed on the theme, using Wilder's technique of spreading whole lifetimes across what looks like a single event. But where his plays are distinguished by a disconcertingly long view of existence and a profound awareness of the grave, Birthday Candles is marked by a slightly sticky whimsicality spiked with easy sentiment. If you're looking for provocative drama, you may want to pass on this ninety-year-long party.

Still, one can imagine Birthday Candles having quite an afterlife in resident theatres, as it provides a deluxe vehicle for its leading lady. And, certainly, Debra Messing is engaging throughout, whether impersonating Lear with a colander poised tipsily on her head, going about her baking duties in a silent state or mourning, or, with a purr of pleasure, assuring her adult son that she will be "ecstatically alone" on a long-delayed world tour. Without the aid of costume changes or makeup, the actress ages by degrees until, at 107, she appears bent over, struggling to hold onto quotidian reality. Messing also has the knack of suggesting deep feelings in a single economical gesture, for example when a loved one slowly slips from her embrace until she is left, alone, desperately hugging herself.

Messing gets solid support from a company of quick-change artists, each of them skilled at navigating the years and (in some cases) several roles, often lending extra heft to the sketchiest of characters. Enrico Colantoni does his considerable best as the goofy, phobic neighbor who yearns after Ernestine for the better part of a century, constantly urging her join in on a game of play pin the tail on the donkey. Alas, such cutesy gestures are not rare in Birthday Candles. If you dislike adorable depictions of old age, you'll freeze over at the sight of Colantoni and Messing executing an arthritic conga line. John Earl Jelks has a slightly easier time of it as Ernestine's genial, but disappointing, first husband, who returns, years after their breakup, in dire need of care.

Crystal Finn brings her special brand of high-tension comedy to the roles of Ernestine's ruthlessly self-punitive daughter-in-law and the granddaughter who tries to heal the family's divisions. Susannah Flood is briefly touching as Ernestine's ailing mother and her mentally troubled daughter. At the performance I attended, understudy Brandon J. Pierce flawlessly stepped into the role of Ernestine's son, a musician with father issues ultimately brought low by illness.

Christine Jones' set, a kitchen without walls over which hangs dozens of ordinary objects -- moons, books, toys, pots, and pans - has just the right cosmic touch; Jen Schriever's sensitive lighting and John Gromada's sound design effortlessly signal each leap forward in time. Based on Toni-Leslie James' costume design, it's difficult to tell exactly when the play is taking place, but perhaps this was an intentional choice.

Director Vivienne Benesch has a nice light touch for the first hour or so, but she runs into trouble in the latter scenes, when Haidle struggles to stake out a suitable finale. (I counted at least four times when I thought it was over.) Even with its short running time, the play's parade of homey insights becomes a drag; the climatic scene, in which the centenarian Ernestine, having escaped a residential facility, breaks into her former home, is a head-scratcher. And, to make his point about the evanescence of life, Haidle has conceived a gallery of characters who come and go without making much of an impression. As the saying goes, life is short, art is long; Birthday Candles is the brief account of a long life, but this cake makes for an awfully slow bake. --David Barbour

(18 April 2022)

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