Birthday Candles, the new Roundabout Theatre production starring Debra Messing, best known for NBC’s Will & Grace, opened on Sunday at the American Airlines Theater to completely mixed reviews. The saccharine production, full of cute profundities, either had folks sniffing in their handkerchiefs and holding back tears, or looking for the door and suppressing loud groans. The set design by Christine Jones gets universal praise, but the challenge for the cast to play characters across a 90 year span may have been too tall an order. In the end, this cake might not be for everyone; but if you’re looking for something a little sweet, sprinkled with some words of wisdom, this show might be the perfect treat for you.
New York Times Review of Take Me Out
Noah Haidle’s “Birthday Candles,” which opened on Broadway Sunday night at the American Airlines Theater, tries to build poignancy and depth through moments that repeat like a record needle stuck in a groove. Instead, this Roundabout Theater Company production gets caught in a superficial cycle of wannabe profundities and emotional pantomimes. … With ordinary characters expounding on the preciousness of life, “Birthday Candles” aspires to convey eloquent whimsy — births, deaths, love, despair, whole constellations of human feelings and thoughts — but it’s Christine Jones’ wondrous set design that wordlessly manages the trick. … Most of the cast, particularly Messing, who delivers an awkward caricature of a teen and then the exaggerated hand-wringing and dithering warble of an old woman, struggle in the sunrise and sunset years. Vivienne Benesch’s direction exaggerates the methodical sentimentality of Haidle’s script, allowing broad, clichéd gestures to do shorthand work. … At its most strained, “Birthday Candles” feels like an imitation of a superior work. The time-hopping conceit doesn’t allow us to get a real sense of the world beyond Ernestine’s kitchen. That said, there were plenty of empathetic sniffles and sighs in the audience during the performance. The most moving moments to me were those quiet exchanges that functioned as silhouettes for unspoken griefs.
Variety Review of Take Me Out
The ingredients of this Roundabout Theatre Company production are equally measured. The impressive acting, practical set and tailored direction blend well to tell a story that could easily feel flat and predictable. Vivienne Benesch’s direction readily elevates Haidle’s script, exploring the emotional and unpredictable time-lapse tale of Ernestine’s birthdays over the course of 90 years. … Many cast members turn in great performances. … Messing gives a believable performance as she gracefully moves through 17, 18, 39, 50, 70, 88 and 107 without ever leaving the stage. Flood shines in all three roles she plays, serving dry dramatic comedy as Madeline and a delicate youth as Ernie. … This play feels like an offering, a true gift, a lesson on survival and a bold reminder to live each day with zest and adventure. Certainly, the icing on the cake is that we survived all the challenges of 2020 (and beyond) to enjoy this scrumptious production.
Deadline Review of Take Me Out
What works best in Birthday Candles [is] the acknowledgement of never-ending loss, whether through death or divorce or hard feelings or the simple act of drifting away. Messing, in particular, captures that bundle of emotions brought on by loss, sudden or otherwise: pain, bewilderment, anger, and slow, slow resignation. … At its best, Birthday Candles offers a bemused and rather awestruck perspective on the fleeting highs and relentless lows of life. What the play doesn’t quite manage is balance of a more stylistic bent, moving fitfully between naturalism and a more fabulist approach, the latter marked by some rather twee flourishes (a goldfish or, rather, a 100-year series of goldfishes, all named Atman, which, we’re told, is a Sanskrit word for “the divinity within yourself.” More damaging than that symbolism-fraught fish, though, is the toll taken by the fabulist-versus-realist approach on acting styles. Messing, charming in both the younger and middle-aged iterations of Ernestine…seems to morph from recognizably Ernestine into a sort of EveryGranny. … Set designer Christine Jones pulls off a more enchanting combination of the utilitarian and the fanciful. … Despite whatever missteps, though, Messing and the rest of the cast nicely convey the spectrum of emotions that a life’s sweep encompasses, from happy times to sad (at the reviewed performance, audience sobs and sniffles were as audible as the laughter). Not even a tacked-on final birthday scene that strains credulity can sour the simple, icing-sweet pleasures of Birthday Candles.
Time Out Review of Take Me Out
In Noah Haidle’s thin and drippy Birthday Candles…It’s Thornton Wilder without the wildness or the thorns. Messing knows how to make the sentimental bits work—the play elicits sympathetic “awwwww”s from the audience at several junctures—and she gets capable support from [the] cast. But Birthday Candles, directed by Vivienne Benesch, is little more than a compendium of twee pseudo wisdoms: Everything is made of stardust, forgiveness is the heart of most major religions, goldfish only have a three-second memory span, and so forth. There’s a slice of life somewhere in this oversugared and underbaked confection, but even that slice is stale.