‘Birthday Candles’ Broadway Review: Debra Messing Bakes a Cake and Ages Ungracefully

Playwright Noah Haidle writes a high-concept tear-jerker

birthday candles
Photo: Joan Marcus

Debra Messing doesn’t so much play a character as she plays a concept in Noah Haidle’s new five-hankie comedy “Birthday Candles,” which opened Sunday at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre.

Haidle is big on concepts. For his play “Smokefall,” he told the story of four generations of one family, and even took us inside the womb to explore the development of two characters. In “Birthday Candles,” he visits the character of Ernestine (Messing) on several of her birthdays, from age 17 to well into old age. Since “Birthday Candles” is a one-act play clocking in at around 100 minutes, Haidle’s writing involves major compression of time. Some of those birthdays last 10 minutes; others are covered in seconds. For example, one sequence of birthdays features Ernestine’s husband (John Earl Jelks) giving her the same bottle of perfume over and over again (three birthdays, 10 seconds tops) until she realizes he’s having an affair.

Her realization of this infidelity is a real shocker. Not because the husband’s cheating is unusual. What’s shocking is that the scene (lasts maybe five minutes) is almost beat for beat what happens in the first act of “Plaza Suite.” Granted, Haidle tells the story a lot faster than Neil Simon. But even in 1968 when Simon wrote “Plaza Suite,” not one of his best efforts, the material was a bit moldy.

Elsewhere, Haidle borrows from Lifetime movies to cover as many birthdays as possible. In the last 15 minutes of “Birthday Candles,” he treats us to scenes of stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer. A bipolar disorder is used to perk up the play’s first half hour.

Otherwise, the whole theme of “Birthday Candles” dates way before bad cable TV. It goes back to weepie movies in which the lead female character claims to be a “rebel,” wants to see the world and make a difference. Instead, she gets stuck baking cakes and popping out babies. She doesn’t much like her life until the final reel when it dawns on our heroine that self-sacrifice is noble. What actors like Susan Hayward never did was talk about atoms and physics and their place in the cosmos to make us think we’re watching anything other than a shameless tear-jerker. Christine Jones’s surreal set design emphasizes Haidle’s intellectual side, giving us moons and planets mixed among the Mix Masters.

Vivienne Benesch emphasizes Haidle’s weeper side. She directs “Birthday Candles” in a very Delmer Daves sort of way. Every cliché is milked for maximum effect.

When reviewing “Smokefall,” I wrote that the play was “Thornton Wilder on acid.” With “Birthday Candles,” it’s more like Wilder overdosing on Sweet ‘N Low. Since Haidle hasn’t given her a character to play, Messing does attempt to age on stage. This makes for mawkish moments right at the top when Ernestine is 17 going on 18. It’s also weird near the end when she suddenly channels Martha Scott playing Moses’ mother in “The Ten Commandments.”

As Ernestine’s long-suffering suitor, Enrico Colantoni has the much easier task of skipping a birthday here and there. He makes the wise acting choice not to suggest the various ages of his character. Colantoni instead plays a featured actor in a TV sitcom about a housewife and mother whose male next-door neighbor has a crush on her. Colantoni does have trouble getting down to kneel when his character is somewhere in his 80s. Otherwise, he’s a shoo-in for an Emmy nomination.

Elsewhere in the cast, Crystal Finn, Susannah Flood, and Christopher Livington play parents, children, in-laws and grandchildren, and Haidle gives each of them a big moment to overact.

Bring hankies. Or better yet, break out laughing.