Birthday Candles review: Debra Messing has her cake and bakes it, too
How do you measure, measure a lifetime of years?
That's the question Kidding scribe Noah Haidle attempts to answer in Birthday Candles, his debut Broadway play that opened Sunday night at the American Airlines Theatre and runs through May 29.
The 90-minute existential dramedy stars Debra Messing as Ernestine Ashworth through nine decades of her life, the Will & Grace actress aging playing ages 17 to 107 — without the aid of prosthetics, makeup, or wigs — as the story follows Ernestine baking a simple butter cake on her birthday each year.
It's a tradition that Ernestine's mother taught her and something she repeats as a reminder of the importance of taking stock in the constants of an ever-changing life, especially as she questions her own insignificance in the universe amid romance, heartbreak, raising children, losing children, business success, loneliness, and everything in between.
Messing bakes the cake consistently, a tiny bell tolling to signal the transition of time. Sometimes we jump ahead single years, and other times, multiple ones. Christine Jones' detailed kitsch set remains the same throughout while Messing's costars John Earl Jelks, Crystal Finn, Christopher Livingston, Susannah Flood and Enrico Colantoni come and go playing a variety of notable characters in Ernestine's life, from her mother to her lovers to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
It's a narrative device that's familiar to theater-goers (Thornton Wilder's 1931 play The Long Christmas Dinner comes to mind, as does A. R. Gurney's 1982 The Dining Room). But it's also one that prevents Birthday Candles from shining bright. So much of the play is filled with exposition that the emotional impact of the story's more dramatic moments are lost, the piece instead coming off as cloying as a Hallmark Christmas movie despite director Vivienne Benesch's best efforts.
That isn't to say that there aren't strengths in the performances. Love Life and Tony nominee Jelks is steady as ever, especially as Ernestine's husband. Life & Beth's Flood, in a grounded performance, offers warmth as Ernestine's mom and chaos as her daughter. Livingston (Mindhunter), playing her son, is likable in an unlikeable role while Finn, in her Broadway debut, is a standout in the role of Ernestine's oddball daughter-in-law. Colantoni, of Veronica Mars fame, also making his Broadway debut, brightens up the stage upon every appearance as Ernestine's longtime neighbor.
All play other roles too but anchoring their performances is Messing, who never leaves the stage throughout its entire runtime. The actress — last treading the boards in John Patrick Shanley's 2014 romantic comedy Outside Mullingar — puts her all into the role, and her transformation of Ernestine through the generations of her life is a sight to see.
Subtle changes to her bright costume (designed by Toni Leslie-James) help, but it's really Messing's control over her body and voice that sell it. And while it takes a bit getting used to (seeing any 53-year-old play 17 requires a willing suspension of disbelief that's jarring at first), once you see what Messing's doing, you'll be on-board for the ride.
If only the play gave Messing time to settle, we might have been allowed to experience more of the actress' range. The action moves so fast that emotional moments pop up out of nowhere, and Ernestine's responses ring hollow. When she's betrayed by her husband, the bell tolls to the next year before the audience has had enough time to grasp onto what just happened to our heroine and how she feels.
She's smiling one minute with her daughter, then mourning the death of her the next, then baking as if nothing happened seconds later. That pace is effective for displaying Messing's gift for physical comedy — something that elevated all 11 seasons of Will & Grace, and something the lovable Colantoni brings out the best of in her here — but it seems to unfairly brush past her dramatic chops, almost as if it's saying the television star doesn't have them.
Birthday Candles was commissioned and first premiered at the Detroit Public Theater in 2018 with an entirely different cast, and was brought to Broadway by the Roundabout Theater Company production. Originally intended to premiere before the pandemic, the show was put on pause as COVID raged and the Broadway community shut down. It's hard not to wish Haidle had used that time to adjust some of the play's ingredients. Scaling back to a few years and offering longer scenes might have been a better choice.
Still, judging by the sniffs in the audience by the play's conclusion, it's clear Birthday Candles landed with some. Personally, I was more upset about the cake's fate than Ernestine's. C