Two Very Different Memory Plays: How I Learned to Drive and Birthday Candles

These two plays, MTC‘s How I Learned to Drive and Roundabout‘s Birthday Candles, couldn’t be further apart, but in a way, the two kept colliding in my head after watching them this week, basically, because one handled the memories so authentically and with such careful deliberation, and the other blew itself out with stereotypical characterizations that had nothing to do with authenticity or deep internal conflict. One felt true and seamless, while the other got moored in stylistically sentimental nonsense and never found the road inwards.

Debra Messing in Roundabout Theatre Company’s BIRTHDAY CANDLES. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022

In Roundabout’s Birthday Candles, Debra Messing (Broadway’s Outside Mullingar, NBC’s “Smash“) tries with all her heart to give energy and care to the overly sentimental mishmash of Noah Haidle’s new play. She formulates the idea of a woman who ages from 17 to 100 in just under 100 minutes, doling out seemingly treasured nuggets of sentimental constructions worthy of a million Hallmark cards and films folded up into one. Her presentation is more Carol Burnett characterizations than actually finding the troubled heart of the woman at the center of this play. The main overarching problem is the play itself which is really just an abstract structural achievement, rather than one based on organic emotions or a dramatic examination of a woman’s life lived. This is not great storytelling, with little to emotionally invest in, but just a formulation iced with a sweet frosting that will leave your blood sugar crashing soon after, and Messing doesn’t add any ingredient to make it any more fulfilling.

The play is all concept, right down to the goldfish, with the lead character, Ernestine, unpacking her life over the course of numerous Birthday moments, as she slowly makes her mother’s birthday cake from scratch. She repeats (and repeats) the stories that her mother told her; about life and the ingredients. It’s a sweet set-up that wears out its welcome quite quickly. We start when Ernestine is 17 years old, and her mother is there to lead her through. Now, I’m pretty good when it comes to math, so working backward, if the last birthday, her 100th, is taking place in the here and now, that 17 year old was doing a feminist reimagining of King Lear in the late 1930s, and that sounds like a big old hard-to-believe stretch. Or maybe, if that teenager’s birthday was in, say the 1960s – which is still a stretch for that high school play, then the last one, her 100th, is taking place in a future that looks and sounds exactly the same as this year, or a few years prior.

John Earl Jelks, Debra Messing in Roundabout Theatre Company’s BIRTHDAY CANDLES. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022

I don’t want to get bogged down in that silly time/year construct, but as directed by Vivienne Benesch (Folger Theatre’s Love’s Labor Lost), the whole thing feels somewhat stuck in a time loop that doesn’t move or shake forward in any logical sense. It plays off a compression of time, the story of four generations of one family, that never seems to move beyond the moment, staying in a sentimental universe where little changes, especially the words of ‘wisdom’ spoken by Messing’s Ernestine.

Some of the constructs of rapid-year jumps work, solidifying ideas that make logical sense yet falter in the emotional depth department. Three birthdays are unpacked together in less than one minute, each one bookmarked by a sound cue, showcasing Ernestine’s husband, a valent try by John Earl Jelks (Broadway’s Sweat), repeatedly gifting his wife the same bottle of perfume. At first, it is seen as romantic, but quickly turns itself around to represent something much darker. It’s a cool connection, but the denouement of this moment flickers by so fast it becomes more of a plot point than a rendering of what it all would actually feel like.

Everything before and after seems lifted from bad television movies, treating hardships and tragedies in a snap, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, death, disruption, and mental health issues with quick dissolves, forgotten much later, to make room for the next. The play flips through them as if the cast and crew are all too impatient to get to the end, without ever really caring what it might be like to actually live through the life experience. All this hodgepodge takes place under a multi-faced moon and a collection of items that aren’t really connected to the story. It feels like they were all put together in order to push out sweet childhood reminiscings and heartfelt memories of our collective stereotypical childhoods. Teddy bears and the like dangle in the sky above a suburban house interior that never changes, designed by Christine Jones (Broadway’s Harry Potter…), with costuming by Toni-Leslie James (Broadway’s Come From Away), lighting by Jen Schriever (Broadway’s Grand Horizons), and sound design by John Gromada (Broadway’s The Elephant Man), all laid out for optimal effect, at all costs with little reward.

Christopher Livingston, Debra Messing, Crystal Finn, John Earl Jelks, Susannah Flood in Roundabout Theatre Company’s BIRTHDAY CANDLES. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022

It’s unclear what all these items hanging have to do with the play, beyond an overly sentimental idea of what childhood means and should feel like, without any more complicated symbols causing any minor disturbances. She is a teenager, who wants to be a rebel and travel the world. Naturally. She finds herself stuck at home though throughout, raising difficult children, with a husband who cheats, and a neighbor, simply portrayed by a sweet Enrico Colantoni (MTC’s Arabian Nights), who can’t stop himself from popping by to frighten/charm her on her birthday, as she steadfastly makes herself the same cake her mother once taught her in that very fast, first scene, repeating tidbits of overly saccharine dialogue that is meant to make us weep whenever she repeats it to her children and their children. And she does it often, and it did make me weep, but for all the wrong reasons.

The cast, which includes Crystal Finn (Roundabout’s Kingdom Come), Susannah Flood (Barrow Street’s The Effect), and Brandon J. Pierce (Primary Stages’ Exit Strategy) [playing the parts usually assigned to Christopher Livingston (Public’s Party People)], tries hard to formulate all the different characters they are tasked to display, and I give them all credit for somehow making it all run smoothly. The only catch is that they are anchored to Messing, who tries to age gracefully on stage, but is directed to resort to overly simplistic clichés rather than finding the heart and soul of this woman. Pushing down your stockings and talking with an odd lilt to showcase old doesn’t make the whole thing believable. The play’s language doesn’t help, giving the actress little to dig into. Someone really needed to tell Messing that channeling The Carol Burnett Show‘s ideas of what makes for an elderly person (or even a young one) might be about the worst choice to be made, at any age.

Enrico Colantoni, Debra Messing in Roundabout Theatre Company’s BIRTHDAY CANDLES. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2022

Mary-Louise Parker in How I Learned to Drive at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)

Over at the Manhattan Theatre Company’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, something entirely different is being channeled forward, something that is baked with authenticity in a way that Birthday Candles could only wish for when blowing itself out. The emotionality of Paula Vogel’s piece is as rich and dense on the inside as it is on the outside, folded in and around a difficult subject matter with an artful wonder. And for that, all our wishes for the season have come true, thanks to How I Learned to Drive.

I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to see How I Learned to Drive for about 25 years. I was here, living in NYC when these two fine actors graced the Vineyard Theatre stage blasting forth this Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1997, but for some unknown reason, I never got the chance to see it. It’s not like I didn’t know about it or that I had no interest. Maybe it was sold out, or I was too slow with my credit card. Maybe I just couldn’t afford to go to it at the time. Who knows. But I knew I needed and wanted to see it. Then and now, and by the grace of those crazy theatre gods, I have my chance. Finally. And with the same two leads. Who would have thought that would be possible?

David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker in How I Learned to Drive at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)

How I Learned to Drive, written with a strong smart edge by Paula Vogel (Indecent) is not the easiest of stories to engage with, or sit through, but easy to love. The play is difficult, and constantly uncomfortable, shifting and focusing its eye on an alcoholic pedophile named Uncle Peck, portrayed with tight ease by the phenomenal David Morse (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh) seducing, slowly and methodically, his niece, played to perfection by Mary-Louise Parker (Broadway’s The Sound Inside; HBO’s “Angels in America“). They both did honor to the same parts 25 years ago, and here, on Broadway, they find themselves enmeshed once again in its difficultness and complicit discomfort.

Parker is god-sent, having the brilliant knack of easily and methodically slipping back and forth through time zones. She makes it all work, by never pandering to the teenager within as she is steadfastly groomed from the age of 11 for this sexual abuse by her trusted Uncle. By giving her an inner life and meaning within her physically altered presence, she neatly fits. It’s an astounding transitional formulation that she repeatedly enlists, making us believe in her wholely. She grounds it in her presence, making the whole uncomfortable story powerful and utterly captivating.

She, and the play, never lets us off the hook. But lays the whole process out in an epic nonlinear construct. We flick around the years, unpacking the process and bookmarked with a difficult metaphor. We are given only her own family nickname, Li’l Bit, but Parker finds much more in her essence with unfiltered ease, embodying her with clarity, even as we squirm uncomfortably in our seats. As directed wisely by Mark Brokaw (Broadway’s Heisenberg) and crafted miraculously by Vogel, we become entwined within the theatrical construction, even when sometimes the driving metaphors start to feel a bit too sharp for their own good. But the remarkable thing about this play is just how wisely we are ushered through, teasing us in, yet never making it feel heavy-handed or blatant.

Alyssa May Gold, David Morse, Mary-Louise Parker, Johanna Day, and Chris Myers in How I Learned to Drive at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)

Even when presented with that uncomfortable and disturbing monologue by Li’l Bit’s aunt about how she sees the whole thing and states most emphatically who she thinks might be responsible. It’s one of the most complicated reformations, beautifully unpacked by Johanna Day (Broadway’s The Nap). It’s tense with contradictory knowledge, fleshing out an idea that we all don’t really want to think about. She is just one of three brilliant actors playing numerous parts in what is essentially an all-knowing Greek Chorus, the others being Alyssa May Gold (Broadway’s Arcadia) and Chris Myers (Second Stage’s Whorl Inside a Loop). Each has their delicious moment (s) to rise and strike us down with, but inside that one condensed accusation, the realm stays focused and empathetic, pulling off a balancing act that is beyond impressive.

Parker is the core, finding uncomfortable authenticity in her shocking memory play, but Morse’s role is as key to the drive and forward motion as anyone in the cast. He finds the troubled human inside, making it impossible to see him only as a monster, while doing sly monstrous things to this teenager’s head. It’s completely unsettling, flipping from this likable man who has her back ‘respectfully’ in a way no one does in her dysfunctional family, to a man who says things to his young niece that drip with tense coercion and manipulation. Morse is astonishing in the role, making him believable and delivering us through the piece without letting us ever fully hate him, even while being horrified by what we are witnessing. It’s an astonishing leap, and the two together are electric, justifiably worth the wait.

Johanna Day, Mary-Louise Parker, Alyssa May Gold, and Chris Myers in How I Learned to Drive at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)

Johanna Day, who was also in the original Vineyard production, finds force by placing each scenario in a playbook that metaphorically enhances the intention while wrapping itself most delicately from a standardized driver’s manual. “Shifting forward from first to second gear,” is about as clear as it gets as we watch what follows. Not just in the front seat of Uncle Peck’s car, which is uncomfortable enough. And while he does dutifully teach her well how to drive safely and with honor, the play also unpacks a complicit home environment, with no one really getting off the hook, even when they try to point the blame far away from themselves. “She’s a sly one….she’s twisted Peck around her little finger.”

On a simplistic but very effective set, designed by Rachel Hauck (Broadway’s Hadestown), with stark lighting by Mark McCullough (Broadway’s Jesus Christ Superstar), subtle costuming by Dede Ayite (Broadway’s Slave Play), and a solid sound design and original music by David Van Tieghem (Broadway’s Burn This), How I Learned to Drive takes the authentic route to the core. It’s a far more complicated story to tell when compared to Birthday Candles, and maybe it’s not even fair to put them in the same category (or review), but in terms of one playing hard to make us cry or the other actually finding its way in to make us uncomfortable with the horrific truth, How I Learned to Drive wins big. And deserves all the praise and awards it will most likely be given or nominated for this theatrical season.

David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker in How I Learned to Drive at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (2022)

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