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Two Years Later: Enrico Colantoni Makes New Discoveries in Birthday Candles

Colantoni stars alongside Debra Messing in Noah Haidle's new play at the American Airlines Theatre.

The cast of Noah Haidle's Birthday Candles was in rehearsal when Broadway shut down in March 2020. Like every other theater production in New York and across the world, the actors gathered their things, left the building, and watch their entire run dwindle away as a month became a year, and one year became two.

One thing never wavered: Roundabout Theatre Company's commitment to this emotional new drama, which charts the life of an ordinary woman over the course of 90-odd years, through marriages, births, deaths, and cakes. Now, almost exactly two years on, Birthday Candles is in previews, once again with Debra Messing leading the company and Vivienne Benesch directing.

Returning for the ride is Enrico Colantoni, a very familiar face from TV's Just Shoot Me and Veronica Mars. Colantoni has a long stage resume, too, but this production, at the American Airlines. Theatre, marks his Broadway debut.

The two-year break has given him a new perspective on the work, Colantoni says. He doesn't even think he really understood the beauty of the play until now. Here, he tells us why.

Enrico Colantoni and Debra Messing in Birthday Candles
(© Joan Marcus)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I don't think I've seen a collective emotional reaction the way Birthday Candles provides in a really long time. It seemed like the whole audience was sniffling and dabbing at their eyes.
I think if we had gone up two years ago, we wouldn't have had the same reaction. The pandemic certainly has put everything into perspective. We all had the same experience, which is one thing, but this play, on top of it, is just a constant reminder of what one needs to be grateful for. This play just reminds us of how everyone's life is a work of art.

I don't think I would have understood the beauty of this piece two years ago. The pandemic really shook me to the core and helped me understand what really is important. Rereading it over the last two years, I kept seeing things I never would have seen. Noah is a mystic, and this play gives us a new perspective. What he writes about just transcends life. It's about the experience of your life, and not how to live your life. He reminds us of who we are, where we're coming from, where we're going, and to notice what we have left.

I don't want to spoil your arc, but in this play, you have a particularly satisfying journey that takes your character a literal lifetime.
He's so pure. What he represents to me is just belief. Belief in your dreams, belief in who you are. Anybody who's attained any sort of dream success understands that it doesn't always happen right away. Sometimes it'll take 80 years. I do see parallels in my own life — I've always wanted to be on Broadway, and I waited 38 years. If you want it, if it's in your soul, somehow, you have to achieve it. It's going to happen. And it happens perfectly in the play. Anything we think we want will happen at the perfect time.

Susannah Flood, Enrico Colantoni, Debra Messing, Christopher Livingston, John Earl Jelks, and Crystal Finn in Birthday Candles
(© Joan Marcus)

One of the things that really impressed me was the physicality — how all of you effortlessly age 80, 90 years without any sort of makeup, prosthetics. Just body language and voice. Tell me about developing that.
We hunch over like this, and it's like we're old, and an audience in theater is willing to go along with it. Maybe it takes the first 10 minutes to realize what's going on. But really Debra spearheaded it, because you watch her, and she never gets to leave the stage. She rolls down her socks, she puts on a sweater, her shoes change, and suddenly, her voice drops, and then it goes up in pitch. You don't really have to convince anybody, because everybody watching was just along for the ride and was in on the gag. That's the beauty of acting, and the beauty of theater. It allows us to live in that imagination where anything is possible, which doesn't happen in film or TV. And how lucky are we to be able to do that, eight times a week?

Had you ever worked with Debra before?
Deb and I did Mysteries of Laura, and even before that, Just Shoot Me was literally next to Will and Grace on the lot. The stages were next to each other. So we knew each other in our sitcom days. It's so easy to love that woman. That's what I thought from the first day. All I've got to do is love Debra Messing. Okay. I hope they don't want to take my money back, because I was doing that for free already. Sign me up, easy peasy.

You've done a lot of theater in your career, but this is your Broadway debut. Has the experience been all you've wanted it to be?
Yeah. The Broadway experience — the creative experience, it could have happened anywhere, anytime, with these people. It could have happened off-Broadway. But Roundabout is just so wonderful. The time and money they put into the Covid protocol to keep us safe. Their commitment to the play. Where they put us up. They take such good care of us. And I know that's not the independent Broadway experience, but the homesteads, the Manhattan Theatre Clubs, the Roundabouts. They're very much like a family and they make you feel welcome. So that has been wonderful.

And the other thing about Broadway…There are off-Broadway shows where the cast might outnumber the audience. Every night of previews is sold out. How fantastic is that? I don't have to invite all my friends and family!