Playwright Noah Haidle blows out his ‘Birthday Candles’

NEW YORK (AP) — Playwright Noah Haidle’s Broadway debut is all about time and yet none was on his side as the pandemic closed in.

Rehearsals for his play “Birthday Candles” were in their second week in March 2020 when his career achievement was snatched away. He had to become Zen.

“It became a private satisfaction. Any outward validation is quite nifty, but it doesn’t matter,” he says, thinking at the time: “I believe in the quality of this, and it’s immaterial whether people see it or not.”

People are finally seeing “Birthday Candles” and cheering its cosmic look at time, ritual and memory, a play that connects baking a cake to “atoms left over from creation.”

The play visits and revisits one woman and her loved ones on her various birthdays as she ages from a rebellious 17-year-old to a 107-year-old great-grandmother. It stars Emmy Award-winner Debra Messing.

The play was birthed in Detroit in 2018 and worked on until just days before it opened this month. Haidle recalls an early version had ballooned to 190 pages with a “tragically bad” third part. The script is now an economical 100 pages and even includes a recipe for a cake to be made onstage.

The 43-year-old playwright is a graduate of Princeton University and The Juilliard School, a man able to quote Noam Chomsky and Buffalo Bill from “The Silence of the Lambs” with equal vigor.

In college, Haidle hated the pseudo-intellectual job of writing papers about a work’s meaning — “who cares what I have to say about ‘Hamlet’?” — and preferred going to the library and reading plays. He’s not precious about his art.

“Remember the golfer John Daly? His theory on golf was ‘grip it and rip it.’ So that’s my theory of playwriting — grip it and rip it,” he says.

Haidle and his wife have a 1-year-old son, who took his first steps outside just before “Birthday Candles” opened. That meant he wrote a play exploring parenthood before he himself became a father. “I could imagine,” he explains. “That’s what playwrighting is. You make stuff up.”

Shards of things that intrigue Haidle are studded throughout his work. A favorite passage from “King Lear” appears in “Birthday Candles,” and the name of an onstage goldfish — Atman — comes from the name of a poodle adored by the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

“He has the highest level of philosophy and scholarship and just the most open, vulnerable heart,” says director Vivienne Benesch. “His ability to combine those things, to me, makes him an exceptional writer.”

Haidle has also written for TV — including the Showtime series “Kidding” starring Jim Carrey — and one movie, “Stand Up Guys,” starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. (Haidle grades it “a solid B-minus, C-plus.”)

For reasons he is not entirely sure, Haidle is better known in Germany than America. “I’ve had kind of two playwriting lives — bifurcated. I try and use that every time I talk to someone,” he jokes.

For instance, his “Mr. Marmalade” bombed in New York in 2005 — featuring a child’s imaginary friend who is violent and does cocaine — but was adored in Germany. This fall, “Birthday Candles” will be his 10th play performed in Germany.

“American playwriting? I’ve done OK,” he says. “Over there, I’m the best-known American playwright.” One review in a German newspaper had the headline: “Chekhov, Beckett, Haidle.”

Haidle, whose other plays include “Saturn Returns” and “Smokefall,” is not a playwright who delivers a script and then heads for the exit. He likes working with the director and actors to shape the play until it’s ready, as well as listening to the audience.

“I think a playwright who thinks that a production is supposed to be an execution of their vision is in for a bad life,” he says. “Once you put it in real time and with real people, it’s not supposed to be what’s in your mind.”

Haidle was tinkering all the way to the end this time, altering lines that weren’t working and adding dialogue for actors who now must cross the large stage of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre.

“I find if an actor drops a line twice, maybe it doesn’t need to be there. If things sound gobbledygook in their mouths, if they make mistakes — malapropisms — that are better than what I wrote, I’m like, ‘Cool.’”

As COVID-19 rates spiked again this spring, Haidle found himself drafted to be an actor in his own play for understudy rehearsal.

“I’m a terrible actor. Awful,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t think about it as my play. I was like, ‘Come on give me more lines, man. My part could be way better.’”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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