Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Birthday Candles

Last week, I saw Roundabout's production of Noah Haidle's play Birthday Candles starring Debra Messing. The play follows the life of a Michigan woman one birthday at a time, as she progresses from being a teenager to being an elderly woman.

The piece is reminiscent of plays by Thornton Wilder in that it tries to universalize the human experience, and in particular the experience of the American Family. In many of Wilder's plays, however, like The Skin of Our Teeth, the universal is placed in dialogue with the political and the technological.

What makes Birthday Candles different is its total rejection of political and technological change. Generally, if a person lives for nearly a hundred years, that individual will see depressions, wars, protests, and the advent of new technologies like commercial airline travel, space exploration, and personal computers.

If Ernestine--the protagonist of Birthday Candles--experiences these things, they don't seem to affect her very much. She goes on baking cakes in the same oven her mother used, using the same methods, never changing much of anything. If the characters in The Skin of Our Teeth exist in a timeless New Jersey, it is still a New Jersey shaped by global events, to which the characters in Birthday Candles seem oblivious.

That isn't to say that it isn't a good play, but it feels oddly detached from the world around us. Even when basing a play on Greek myth, like with The Alcestiad, Wilder always engaged with the events going on around the globe while he was writing. Here we are, going through our own turbulent times, and the theatre on display on Broadway is currently taking a very different approach, at least in the case of Birthday Candles.

There are some very strong performances though, particularly by Susannah Flood, who played Dunyasha in Roundabout's previous production of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. In Birthday Candles, Flood plays both Ernestine's mother Alice, and her daughter Madeline, and later Ernie, another descendant of the ever-older Ernestine.

Birthday Candles is playing until May 29th, so get your tickets if you're interested in seeing it.