525,600 minutes. That’s how you measure a life, according to the late Jonathan Larson who summarized humanity in his hit musical Rent. Playwright Noah Haidle has whittled that down to 90 minutes in his poignant comedy-drama , Birthday Candles.
Debra Messing, best known for her Emmy award winning turn in television’s Will and Grace leads the cast as Ernestine Ashworth, an “everywoman” type who is contemplating life’s biggest questions. As the show begins, we meet Ashworth as a curious 17 year old. Along the way, we meet Matt (John Earl Jelks), her high school sweetheart whom she refuses to marry. “I’m not going to prom with you or anybody,” she defiantly proclaims. “We’re about to graduate high school. Grand Rapids, Michigan? The Midwest?No, thanks, there’s the world. I’m not falling in love with you or anyone else.”
That is until the next scene, 21 years later, when she’s married to Matt. The pair now have two children: Madeline (Susannah Flood) and Billy (Christopher Livingston). We also meet Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni), a fellow high school student turned neighbor who suffers unrequited love, and Joan (Crystal Finn), Billy’s overly neurotic wife.
And so the pattern of life continues as Ashworth navigates her place in the cosmos, all while baking a butter cake in real time and musing on Atman, her goldfish. The confection tradition began with her mother and Ashworth, year after year, now passes it on to her own descendants. By the end (and this is no great plot surprise), Ernestine is 107.
Haidle’s work succeeds because he generalizes his characters and yet specifies aspects of immutable human behavior. There is no particular era for the play, allowing audiences to see much of their own patterns reflected onstage. Haidle reminds us of our frailty, foibles, hypocrisies, along with the loyalties, joys and rewards that all compose our lives.
Certainly, there are those who will view Birthday Candles as an exercise in over-sentimentality. Haidle—along with director Vivienne Benesch—have straddled this line with great caution, ultimately allowing for genuine and reflective audience reaction.
Christine Jones magical sets adds to the show’s mystical quality with dangling items—hung like stars in the sky—all which reflect keepsakes from our past.
This is not Kierkegaard, nor is it a frivolous slice of mindless entertainment. With its perfectly measured ingredients, it’s a play that celebrates lives well lived and leaves us with aspirations to do the same.
Birthday Candles is playing on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater (W. 42nd between 7th and 8th, NYC.) through May 29th. For tickets and information, click here.