One minute you’re a teenager ready to “rebel against the universe,” and then in the blink of an eye you’re an old man coming to terms with the life that has been handed to you. This is the short, sweet introduction to Noah Heidel’s buttery new drama, “Christmas Candles.” In the play, which now has its New York premiere on Broadway’s American Airlines Theater, Debra Messing (“Will & Grace,” “Smash”) plays protagonist Ernestine, moving methodically and gently through the aging process and proving that the recipe for prosperity is Survival.
These Roundabout Theater Company production components are evenly measured. Impressive acting, practical set, and well-crafted direction blend to tell a story that can easily feel flat and predictable. Directing Vivienne Benesch effortlessly elevates Haidle’s script, exploring the emotional and unexpected tale of Ernestine’s birthdays over 90 years.
The audience gets to know the strange Ernestine on her seventeenth birthday. Inside a crowded farmhouse-style kitchen helpfully designed by Kristen Jones, Ernestine interjects with her mother’s question (who is busy collecting the ingredients for a traditional homemade Christmas cake), “Am I wasting my life?”
It is not at all strange for Ernestine to wonder about life at this age: many women are taught to plan for their future from the moment they turn 16. In this case, Ernestine’s mother Alice (Susanna Flood) replies just as one would expect: “You’re almost out of this house, Ernestine. Soon you’ll have a family.”
In preparation for that family, Alice hopes to leave behind the tradition of baking Ernestine’s birthday cake, a ritual that will soon be passed down from generation to generation. While Ernestine’s birthdays serve as the backdrop and timeline for this story, love, marriage, family, hurt, and divorce – rinsing and repetition – become the recurring themes of this play. Audiences are welcomed to experience the cycle of life, death, bread and everything in between in an engaging series of deja vu experiences.
Many of the cast members put on great performances. Messing and Enrico Colantoni (as the hilarious neighbor who is part of Ernestine’s future) play one, while the remaining cast – Flood, John Earl Jelks, Christopher Livingston and Crystal Finn – act as chameleons, merging into a number of ages-shifts. characters.
The absurd gives a reasonable performance as she gracefully moves through the 17th, 18th, 39th, 50th, 70th, 88th and 107th without ever leaving the stage. Flood stars in all three of her roles, delivering dry comedy-dramas as Madeline and a fluffy guy as Ernie. Because of the slow construction of this story, the authentic physical interaction between the actors takes time to feel convincing. But they finally click, especially during a poignant moment when Ernestine’s dying daughter, Madeleine, lovingly clings to her mother’s feet in need of support and reassurance. Another notable scene focuses on Ernstein’s transition into her now-ex-husband’s caretaker, Matt (the mutant Gilkes). Although their marriage ends, she nurses him tenderly and tenderly through the fragility of old age.
“Christmas Candles” is the final production of the insightful 2021-22 Broadway season of Roundabout, which also included “Caroline, or Change” and “Trouble in Mind.” Now, during the first theater season after Broadway reopens but still in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, many people are questioning the true meaning of life and wondering “what is my place in this universe?” This play feels like a show, a real gift, a lesson about survival and a daring reminder to live each day with enthusiasm and adventure. Certainly, the joy is that we survived all the challenges of 2020 (and beyond) to enjoy this delicious production.