You can understand why Debra Messing (of TV’s Will & Grace) was drawn to play Ernestine, the central character of Noah Haidle’s new multi-generational comic drama, Birthday Candles.
The character spans 90 years – from age 17 to 107 – from high schooler to great-grandmother, from young love to heartbreak and divorce to unexpected late life romance. It is a role with built-in tour de force potential, even if the play that contains it tends toward excessive sentimentality.
We meet Ernestine, as well as a satellite of relatives and neighbors, on her birthday, when family tradition calls for her to bake a cake to celebrate another natal anniversary. And as each scene plays out, it ends with a BONG! and time takes a quantum leap forward of various numbers of years. Over the Roundabout Theatre Company production’s 90 minutes, we see Ernestine at some dozen or so points in her life, but as soon as we get involved in her current situation, the play has an annoying habit of moving on.
The passage of time, as well as the bittersweet events, pangs of regret and glimmers of joy bring to mind Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, but the comparison is not favorable to Haidle. It also seems clear that the playwright wants us to identify with Ernestine’s life passages, but over the course of the evening we will probably be doing more work making those connections than the play does.
Still, the production is aided immeasurably by the presence of the charismatic Messing, who streaks through an array of emotions and ages with touching credibility, until perhaps she is called on to convey the far side of 100. Director Vivienne Benesch adroitly orchestrates the other five cast members as they change characters as often as they change costumes.
Chief among them are John Earl Jelks as Ernestine’s mostly faithful husband Matt, Crystal Finn as her skittish daughter-in-law Joan and particularly her spunky granddaughter Alex, and Enrico Colantoni as her smitten neighbor Kenneth, whose affection for Ernestine proves limitless.
Set designer Christine Jones provides an aptly detailed kitchen, complete with oven for baking all those cakes. And if the play makes you roll your eyes, do notice the domestic objects – from toys to cooking utensils – hovering overhead.
BIRTHDAY CANDLES, Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. Through Sun., May 29. $39-$250. 212-719-1300.