Review: Birthday Candles With Debra Messing Won't Be Getting "Star Baker" Anytime Soon
Messing stars in Noah Haidle's generation-spanning new play at the American Airlines Theatre.
Birthday Candles is very clear in its scope: 90 years in 90 minutes, every scene taking place on one woman's birthday. Throughout the play, she bakes a single birthday cake, just as her mom taught her and just as she teaches her children and grandchildren. In theory, this play seems almost designed for me. Much like the central character, Ernestine (Debra Messing), I care deeply about family and traditions, and am a passionate baker–my mom even taught me how to bake my first cake. Because of all the similarities and personal connections, Birthday Candles should have felt close to home and pulled on my heartstrings, but instead it just felt like a disappointing bite of bland cake overcompensating with achingly sweet buttercream frosting.
Noah Haidle's play, while an interesting idea, feels generic and overly sentimental, like a fanfiction version of Our Town (though it is inspired, in part, by a different Thornton Wilder play, The Long Christmas Dinner). Much like Our Town, and I say this with love, Birthday Candles would actually be a great play for a high school: minimal set, flexible casting, good roles, manageable length, nice themes. For Broadway, though, it lacks sophistication and maturity, leaning into stock plot lines – high school sweethearts (John Earl Jelks, as Matt, even asks her to prom) getting married, fraught child/parent relationships (especially Christopher Livingston as son Billy), a cheating spouse, a long-awaited romance with a friend (the loveable Enrico Colantoni)–without adding anything new to them. Often it is the things that slightly differentiate the tropes in this play that make it worse. When a character dies, for instance, they take a dramatic breath and slowly exit the stage as a wind chime sound effect echos (the sound design, by John Gromada, is unforgivably cheesy).
Like several recent pieces this season, Birthday Candles (a Roundabout production at the American Airlines Theatre) has a particular interest in cycles. As time passes and generations go on, we see gestures and hear lines repeated over and over. At first, it might make you smile as you see Ernestine continue birthday traditions and you notice various generations of characters repeating things older family members said in previous scenes. Quickly, though, this device grows tired. Instead of exploring what this familial legacy might mean or, as the play mentions, what the "patterns" might be, Haidle just has exact beats and lines repeated, more like a broken record than a commentary on tradition. The play does make effective usage of double and triple casting, albeit in obvious ways; Susannah Flood, for example, plays Ernestine's mother, daughter, and granddaughter (and does so quite well).
Birthday Candles does have at least one thing going for it: it will certainly make you laugh out loud. Some of those laughs, and some of its more sentimental moments, though, gave me pause. The play treats the minds and bodies of the characters, particularly their disabilities, as a butt of a joke or a source of pathos. Ernestine's daughter-in-law Joan (played wonderfully by Crystal Finn), has anxiety and issues with social skills, but this is treated as a source of comedy. Likewise, most of the actors are given a moment when their character is experiencing some form of mental or bodily decline, be it severe depression, life after a stroke, mobility impairments, various pains and slouching with age, dementia; each is played as a Dickensian moment of tragedy. In these two ways, the play appropriates disability to either get a laugh or a tear, both problematic and ableist.
At the center of the play is Debra Messing, who is handed an objectively difficult task of playing a character from age 17 to 107. While I admit that this is no easy feat, I cannot help feeling so disappointed in Messing's performance. Somehow, she never seemed to fit, as if she was always waiting for the part of the play that would be her sweet spot, but it never arrived. At every age she was equally uncomfortable, awkward, stagey, and over the top. In the script, Haidle writes that "There is a legitimate version where [the actor playing Ernestine] never plays age at all, allowing the audience to simply project the passing of time onto her." Reading that line after seeing the show exhilarated me but made me feel mad that Messing and director Vivienne Benesch did not choose to go this direction, which would have been far more interesting than watching Messing caricature her way through nine decades.
This play needs a very strong actor to act as the center of gravity, and Messing was tragically not up to the task. Similarly, she was clearly not up to the (what I would call comparatively simple) task of baking a plain vanilla cake. This cake is central to the play: we are told she makes the cake every year, we watch her mix it, and we hear the recipe several times, as well as a philosophical speech about how the ingredients of a cake reveal the atoms left over from creation, the machinery of the cosmos. The script even specifies how the cake making process must happen in real time.
Despite all this build up, this production totally fails in convincingly showing the baking process. As a baker myself, I admit, I am a harsher and more knowledgeable critic, but it was frustrating and bit astonishing to watch Messing struggle her way through such a basic task, using incorrect technique to measure flour, failing to cream the butter and sugar, and putting all the batter into one small round cake pan. To add insult to injury, the cake is never decorated, assembled, eaten, or finished with the birthday candles of the title.
Birthday Candles as a play feels much like this overly-hyped cake, which in reality is just a run of the mill vanilla cake made up of a single, unfrosted layer. Sure it may smell nice for a minute or two when it comes out of the oven but it is hard to not feel underwhelmed by its lack of complex flavors, its missing layers, and its absent decorations. This production certainly won't be getting Star Baker anytime soon.