Thursday, March 24, 2022

Birthday Candles (Broadway)


“The genius of a party is to offer us all a rest from the daily human errand to travel morning until night. To stake a claim in an hour and say I will notice this.” From the age of 17, Ernestine Ashworth (Debra Messing) has honored the annual family tradition of baking a cake in celebration of her birthday, something she will never forget to do for the years to come until she reaches her 90’s. Through the decades, she goes through the highs and lows of life: starting a family with her high school sweetheart Matt (John Earl Jelks); taking care of her daughter Madeline (Susannah Flood) who suffers from a mental illness; watching her son Billy (Christopher Livingston) marry Joan (Crystal Finn) and start a family of his own; and finding love again through childhood friend Kenneth (Enrico Colantoni). Birthday Candles zooms through the highlights and heartbreaks of a woman’s lifetime as she tries to reconcile her existence with that befuddling quest to find one’s purpose.

Another day another play featuring a TV star in the lead role. Since sometimes these plays tend to be mere vehicles for film and TV actors to test the waters in a Broadway crossover, my expectations were low, even more so because Parker’s Plaza Suite has been wildly entertaining in comparison. Well, Birthday Candles is simple and poignant, an ode or tribute, depending on your perception, to life and its mysteries as well as that endless quest for one’s purpose. The simplicity of the presentation jives, weirdly, well with the profound musings both expressed and subtly hinted upon by the dialogues.

Presented in one act, the set is that of a simple kitchen and living room next to each other with a plethora of random objects hanging from the ceiling with a backdrop of a dark but starlit sky, lending some sort of existential flavor to an otherwise mundane production design. Although simple, the kitchen stands out in pale shades of powder blue and accents of yellow, complementing the lead actress’ dress. The baking of the cake also serves as an anchor, being one of the few things constant, along with the goldfish, as Ernestine grows up and grows old before your eyes.

Messing keeps her yellow shirt on as she ages through the play’s almost two-hour run, marking each passing year with a chiming bell as well as an addition or removal of random clothing accessories and a change in voice quality. Some lines are intentionally repetitive in an effort to hark back to earlier scenes and perhaps to provide consistency with regards to the character’s various life stages. The result is a material that is highly aware of the message it is trying to impart to its audience.

Acting-wise, only Messing is the big name in the cast and the only one along with Kenneth to portray just one role, but in widely different stages of their characters’ lifetimes. The rest of the cast have to juggle multiple roles, distinguishing among them through hairstyle changes and sudden shift in personalities. As an ensemble, there is enough rapport present to make the family relations more convincing.

But perhaps what I admire the most about this play is how it reflects on the intricacies of life in general, those ironically simple yet complex questions we ask when left alone with ourselves. We’ve all wondered about that one way or another at one or many points in our lives. Although Birthday Candles seems to rehash it in that sense, it does manage to reinforce the complexity of it all, asking those questions again on your behalf and encouraging you to ruminate about it.

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