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Playwright Noah Haidle and director Vivienne Benesch on Birthday Candles starring Debra Messing
The last time Roundabout Theatre Company produced one of Noah Haidle's plays, it was a formative experience. "Mr. Marmalade went so badly with critics and audiences, they created the Roundabout Underground series so shit like that wouldn't happen to other emerging artists," he says in his signature deadpan. "To go from that to having a play at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre on Broadway—one of only three new plays they've ever done at that theatre—feels pretty badass."
That new play, Birthday Candles, is also about life's beautiful unpredictability. Debra Messing (Will & Grace, Outside Mullingar) stars as an enchanting everywoman named Ernestine, who ages from 17 to 107 before our eyes in 90 minutes, no makeup or costume changes, all while baking a cake in real time. Each scene is set on one of her birthdays as she grows up and grows old. Loss, betrayal and deferred dreams are all part of her bittersweet journey but, overwhelmingly, she's shaped by love, both familial and romantic. Loosely inspired by Thornton Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner, it's a universal story anyone can relate to that's fleshed out with details taken from Haidle's own experiences. The play's opening line, when a teenage Ernestine wonders, "Have I wasted my life?" was inspired by the eight-year-old daughter of a friend, who sincerely asked that very question. "There's tons of stuff like that," Haidle says. "In some ways, I think of the play as a bunch of inside jokes or personal moments with the people I'm close to."
After five years of collaborating on Birthday Candles, Haidle counts director Vivienne Benesch as one of those people. The two met over a decade ago when Benesch—a former performer who appeared in two Roundabout productions on Broadway—starred in a micro-solo Haidle wrote for Theatre for One in Times Square. They reconnected in 2017, when the Detroit Public Theatre commissioned Michigan native Haidle to pen a new play and attached Benesch before a word had been written. "When they paired us together for the workshop, I was thrilled," Benesch recalls. "I didn't screw up and Noah has kept me around for the evolution of it. So, I've gotten to go on this incredible, incredible ride with him."
Make that a rollercoaster ride. After the play's 2018 world premiere at the Detroit Public Theatre, Birthday Candles went to the New Stages Festival at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where Roundabout's artistic director, Todd Haimes, saw it. He invited the pair to do a reading in New York in 2019, and Haidle encouraged Benesch to ask her old NYU grad school pal Debra Messing to play Ernestine. Soon, they were a go for a full-fledged Broadway production in spring 2020, then the pandemic hit. Haidle, Benesch, Messing and the rest of the cast actually did a meet-the-press event on March 12, 2020 just hours before Broadway shut down for 18 months.
Despite the disappointment, Haidle embraced the extra time. A relentless reviser—"I rewrite every day as much as possible"—he continued working on the play. "The structure of it has not changed since Detroit, but it's definitely evolved," says Benesch. "The grief is so much deeper now. I think that's a reflection of the passage of time and what we've all been through over the past two years." Haidle adds that becoming a father during the pandemic gave him new insight into Ernestine's role as a mother (and grandmother and great-grandma). "The play is about living and dying," he says. "I think I know a little bit more than I did before about all that, and the depths of what a parent would do for a child in a way that was theoretical before, but now is more real."
Lest Birthday Candles sound like a soap opera or saccharine slog, the play is frequently humorous, full of charming and absurd details such as a goldfish named Atman, a feminist interpretation of Queen Lear and eccentrically named nail polishes ("How Dare You, Senator!"). "I think Noah taps into the combination of the funny and the profound better than nearly anyone," Benesch says. "I think we complement each other really well. My mother and grandmother were both dancers, and storytelling through rhythm and movement and sound is where I come from. Noah is the brain, the savant."
"I would say I'm unaware that I have a body," Haidle retorts. "I live in my head as much as possible."
While Haidle has penned other plays since Mr. Marmalade (including Saturn Returns at Lincoln Center Theater and Smokefall at MCC Theater) and worked as a staff writer for the Jim Carrey series Kidding, he sees Birthday Candles as a turning point, and not just because it marks his Broadway debut. "Playwriting is a measure of how courageous you're willing to be. You're stating in a public way: 'This is what I love,'" he says. "Mr. Marmalade was 17 years ago and it was a horrible time. It affected me very deeply in a way that I didn't consciously understand. I lost my moxie, my mettle; I tried to avoid what I thought people didn't like. I made my plays a little nicer, rounded out the edges, kind of courted approval in a way that was detrimental to my own progress. I lost the ability to answer honestly about what I wanted to see on stage. Birthday Candles is my real answer, my first as an adult artist. Everybody likes a comeback story, right? This is one of the most symmetrical and beautiful things that could have possibly happened."
Top image: Debra Messing in Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Birthday Candles on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus.