Depending on one’s inclination, Noah Haidle’s new play “Birthday Candles” could be interpreted as either a heartwarming family drama, a contrived tearjerker, a star-vehicle, a baking class, or a metaphysical meditation on the meaning of life, the universe, and everyday ritual – or even all of the above.
The 90-minute play, which is being presented on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company in a production starring Debra Messing, is built around a premise so simple, straightforward, and surprisingly effective that it’s going to make a lot of other playwrights scratch their heads and wish they had thought of it themselves.
Ernestine (Messing) is depicted baking a cake in her kitchen on her birthday – that is, numerous birthdays of hers, from age 17 to 107. Ernestine never leaves the kitchen, even as time moves forward and members of her family come and go.
The onstage baking is apparently real. Ernestine mixes flour, butter, sugar, and eggs into a batter, puts it into an oven, and eventually takes out a golden yellow cake.
At first, Ernestine is an assertive and rebellious teen who is determined to not conform. But moments later, her mother has died, and she has married her high school boyfriend and has her own rebellious children.
This cycle continues as Ernestine becomes a grandmother and great-grandmother, starts a business, leaves her husband, marries the fumbling boy next door, replaces numerous goldfish, and loses many more people.
All the while, Ernestine keeps baking her bake and opining about the importance of her rituals in the midst of a vast universe (as represented by the stylized scenic design above the kitchen, which depicts a galaxy of planets and family heirlooms). Specific dates and times are not identified throughout the play, although one suspects that Ernestine’s century-long journey was meant to end in the present day.
Messing’s continuing transformation in age is relatively understated and incremental, although there are some shifts in physicality, demeanor, and voice. She is joined by five other actors, most of whom play multiple characters over time, including Enrico Colantoni, John Earl Jelks, Crystal Finn, Susannah Flood, and Christopher Livingston.
Theater buffs will be tempted to compare “Birthday Candles” with “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s classic drama about everyday life. Whereas Emily in “Our Town” relives her 12th birthday after dying in childbirth and feels incredible regret, Ernestine in “Birthday Candles” lives out numerous birthdays and possesses the maturity to understand life and recover from loss.
One could have a cynical reaction to “Birthday Candles,” finding it sentimental and manipulative, with existential queries and lines of “King Lear” that are didactically repeated in an attempt to make it seem profound. On the other hand, others will find its gentle-humored examination of ordinary domestic life to be relatable and deeply moving. At my performance, I heard a lot of sniffing from audience members all around me.
If this production (directed seamlessly by Vivienne Benesch) does not transfer to another theater for an open-ended run, it is probably going to be produced by countless regional and community theater companies in the immediate future.
“Birthday Candles” runs through May 29 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., roundabouttheatre.org.