And the seasons, they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return, we can only look
Behind, from where we came
And go round and round and round, in the circle game
These brief poetic lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s 1966 hit “The Circle Game” provide the same insight into navigating the vagaries of life as the entire 90 minutes of Noah Haidle’s incredibly sentimental new play, “Birthday Candles,” now at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre under Vivienne Benesch’s mostly uninspired direction. And it’s unlikely that even one of the many oft-repeated lines in this bloated script will be quoted anywhere nearly as often in high school yearbooks as Mitchell’s timeless chorus already has.
Then again, Haidle’s deliberately circular play – people get born, people marry, people divorce, people die -- might have been more satisfying as a 30-minute one-act if it wasn’t so determined to be a star vehicle for whoever plays the central role of scrappy midwestern woman Ernestine.
In this debut production, Ernestine is being embodied by Debra Messing, who exhibits enormous stamina, innate likeability, and a believable range of emotions as she oh-so-subtly ages from a dreamy 17-year-old to a mentally-confused centenarian in front of our very eyes, all the while standing – and yes, baking birthday cakes – in her large suburban kitchen (designed perfectly here by Christine Jones).
Still, if Haidle had truly wanted to fully tailor the part to Messing, he could have easily added in a bit more physical comedy – perhaps the actress’ greatest asset – although one senses that everyone involved wanted to try to distance Messing’s Ernestine from her best-known TV alter ego, Grace Adler. Ultimately, the star’s performance is satisfying enough for fans and neophytes alike,
Luckily for Messing (and the audience), though, she has a top-notch ensemble of five actors (and one goldfish) to play with, each of them enlivening and grounding the proceedings. John Earl Jelks effortlessly moves from Ernestine’s charming 18-year-old suitor Matt to her dissatisfied husband of 35 years, while Enrico Colantoni retains his goofy charm throughout the piece as her ultimate “true love” Ken, a sweet-natured man-child who is a lesson in perseverance and unbridled optimism.
Even better are the three little-known actors who play all the supporting roles. Crystal Finn makes an unforgettable Broadway debut, tackling everyone from Ernestine’s neurotic daughter-in-law Joan (one of this season’s funniest creations) to her sweet-natured granddaughter Alexandra; Christopher Livingston is unwaveringly believable as Ernestine’s son William, whose journey through life almost mirrors his mother’s; and Susannah Flood serves up the right doses of practicality and melancholy in her trio of roles.
While the play often feels half-baked, the gifted thespians onstage make traveling the circuitous path of “Birthday Candles” seem like a piece of cake!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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