Michigan’s Ernestine Ashworth (Debra Messing) is 17 today. We meet as she’s conscripted into helping her mom (Susannah Flood) make an eight-step golden butter cake, not only with eggs and flour but “stardust, the machinery of the cosmos, and atoms left over from creation.” (Said cake is literally baked every night filling the theater with sugary scent.)
The stereotypical precocious teenager: “I am a rebel against the universe. I will wage war with the everyday. I am going to surprise God!” makes one long for a distinctive character like Frankie Addams from Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding. There’s not a single sentence to indicate echoes of that spirit even into the following segment. She is, however, about to audition to play Queen Lear (after Shakespeare), a creative concept.
Enrico Colantoni (Kenny), Debra Messing (Ernestine)
For the next 90 minutes, 90 birthdays (107 is stretching it a bit), and 90 cakes, vignettes are divided by offstage chimes. We meet successive generations of Ernestine’s family as they enter, interact, and leave, passing on or growing up.
At the start, two suitors vie for attention – sweet, besotted, somewhat oddball neighbor Kenny (Enrico Colantoni) arrives early to every year’s party surprising Ernestine with a particularly thoughtful gift. The first of these is a goldfish, because she presented a report on the memory span of goldfish in school. Subsequent aquatic pets, all named Atman, “Sanskrit for self…” accompany our heroine through the years…as does Kenny. (Video preview.)
The second swain, rather more suave, is Matt (John Earl Jelks), the man she marries.
John Earl Jelks (Matt), Debra Messing (Ernestine)
Ernestine and Matt have two children, Billy (tonight Brandon J Pierce) and Madeleine (Susannah Flood) – the latter beset by well played mental illness. Next we meet Billy’s kooky, overwrought girlfriend Joan (Crystal Flynn), who gifts her incipient mother-in-law nail polish so they can paint theirs together (nifty premise), then their children, and those children’s children…you get the idea. It all happens rather fast.
Playwright Noah Haidle breaks the hamster wheel with a few inventive aspects – Atman, a height measurement chart extending way into adulthood, Ernestine’s late-in-life business, Kenny’s evolving presence, and the last kitchen scene with some of his play’s best writing. It’s a pleasant, sentimental piece for those who wish alternative entertainment from violent, political, demanding theater.
Susannah Flood, Enrico Colantoni, Debra Messing, Christopher Livingston, John Earl Jelks, Crystal Finn
Debra Messing (Ernestine Ashworth), familiar to most theater-goers as Grace from television’s long running Will and Grace, offers a warm, sympathetic presence. The artist turns on a dime with reactions to a carousel of generations. Physical acting, however, is left by the wayside as 17 year-old Ernestine and octogenarian Ernestine depict age with cliché attributes. There’s not much difference in between but for a change of shoes and hairstyle. Nor is Messing skilled with stage tears.
Of the excellent company, call outs are due to Brandon J. Piece seamlessly stepping in to play Billy and John; Enrico Colantoni (Broadway debut), whose Kenny is bright-eyed and irresistible (physically aging with movement subtlety); and, the find of the evening, Crystal Finn (Broadway debut) as Joan. This actress’s comic, deer in headlights timing/delivery is unique and wonderful at every turn.
Director Vivienne Benesch smoothly moves characters in and out without confusion. Identifying attributes, though sometimes bromides, represent enough difference as actors play multiple roles. Small stage business is adroit. A represented stroke is deft.
Christine Jones’ set design is simply wonderful – imaginative, appealing, telling. Don’t look too quickly away from the wide variety of objects beautifully lit and backlit by Jen Schriever – or you’ll miss the story they tell – and the moons.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Debra Messing
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Birthday Candles by Noah Haidle
Directed by Vivienne Benesch
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St.
Through May 29, 2022