Birthday Candles

Debra Messing (Ernestine Ashworth) in Roundabout Theatre Company's Birthday Candles. Photo: Joan Marcus
Debra Messing (Ernestine Ashworth) in Roundabout Theatre Company's Birthday Candles. Photo: Joan Marcus

Birthday Candles needs a warning.

Other shows disclose strobe light in use, not suitable for ten years and under; language, drugs, sex, violence.

There is not a topic that is touched upon that did not send someone in the audience to tears. It was so bad that the woman next to me had two people ask if she was alright.

Spoiler alert- this play will trigger you if you have recently lost a loved one, have aging relatives, dealt with dementia, lost love, been cheated on, had a home invasion, or pretty much anything.

Debra Messing

Debra Messing, as the lead character Ernestine, is too big. Literally, I am not being mean here. We are supposed to suspend our belief and follow this character from her teenage years, age 17 precisely, to centenarian. At the end of the play, she is too large to be a believable teenager and too upright for a 107-year-old. She is larger than all the rest of the cast.

Aging with the same character by switching footgear from sneakers to Birkenstocks was not enough. In MJ, the musical, we go back and forth from Michael Jackson as a child to the adult Michael seamlessly, believably, and flawlessly – played by different actors.

Enrico Colantoni

And that is what this play is all about. Ernestine aging. 17-107. People come and go. The only constant is a goldfish named Akman, which has been replaced dozens of times. No epiphany. No words of wisdom. Much misery.

Enrico Colantoni, as Kenneth, the guy next door, is believable and brilliant throughout the decades. He adds much-needed levity to an otherwise excessively somber life story. He is likable and a great actor.

Perhaps an Unhappy Birthday

Do not be fooled by the title. It is not a happy birthday. No full life is savored and enjoyed or marked with celebration. Birthday Candles is traumatic and not for those who wear their emotions on their sleeve or recently have participated in the darker side of life. There are too many triggers to make it enjoyable for most. Not all pictures are painted of beautiful subject matters, just executed well, so we admire the technique. Birthday Candles is morose with no offset. There is no winner here, except for the goldfish Akman, brilliant orange, and the only steady, consistent thread as he swims round and round in his bowl, content and oblivious to his surroundings. We should take a queue from him/her.

Cast of Birthday Candles by Noah Haidle

With Debra Messing (Ernestine), Susannah Flood (Alice/Madeline/Ernie), Enrico Colantoni (Kenneth), John Earl Jelks (Matt), Christopher Livingston (Billy/John), Crystal Finn (Joan/Alex/Beth), Goldfish (Akman).


Directed by Vivienne Benesch; Set Design by Christine Jones; Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Light Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by John Gromada; Hair and wig Design by Matthew B. Armentrout; Makeup Design by Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche; Original Music by Kate Hopgood.

Roundabout Theatre Company

American Airlines Theatre

227 West 42nd Street

For tickets click here or here.

Runtime: 90 minutes.
No intermission.

Readers may also enjoy our reviews of Billy Stritch’s Birthday BashAmanda McBroomJoan Ellison sings Judy Garland, and Oratorio for Living Things.

Birthday Candles


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