Playwright Noah Haidle blows out his ‘birthday candles’

NEW YORK — Playwright Noah Haidle’s Broadway debut was a matter of time and yet no one was on his side as the pandemic drew near.

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

“It has become a private satisfaction. Any outside validation is pretty shrewd, but that doesn’t matter,” he says, thinking at the time, “I believe in the quality of this, and it doesn’t matter whether people see it or not.”

People are finally seeing “Birthday Candles” and applauding its cosmic look at time, ritual, and memory, a piece that connects the baking of a cake to the “atoms left behind by creation.”

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

The coin originated in Detroit in 2018 and ran until just days before it opened this month. Haidle recalls an early draft bloated to 190 pages with a “tragically bad” third part. The script is now 100 budget pages and even includes a recipe for a cake to make on stage.

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

In college, Haidle hated the pseudo-intellectual work of writing articles about the meaning of a work – “who cares what I have to say about ‘Hamlet’?” – and preferred to go to the library and read plays. He is not precious about his art.

“Remember golfer John Daly? His golf theory was “grab and rip”. So that’s my theory of playwriting – grab it and rip it,” he says.

Haidle and his wife have a one-year-old son, who took his first steps outside just before “Birthday Candles” opened. This means he wrote a play exploring parenthood before becoming a father himself. “I could imagine,” he explains. “That’s dramaturgy. You make stuff up.”

Fragments of things that intrigue Haidle are sprinkled throughout his work. A favorite passage from “King Lear” appears in “Birthday Candles,” and the name of a goldfish on stage – 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 and vulnerable heart,” says director Vivienne Benesch. “His ability to combine these things, to me, makes him an exceptional writer.”

Haidle has also written for television – including the Showtime series “Kidding” with Jim Carrey – and a film, “Stand Up Guys”, starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. (Haidle notes it “a solid B-minus, C-plus”.)

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

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

“American playwriting? I did well,” he said. “Over there, I’m the best-known American playwright.” A review in a German newspaper was headlined: “Chekhov, Beckett, Haidle.”

Haidle, whose other plays include “Saturn Returns” and “Smokefall,” isn’t a playwright who delivers a script and then heads for release. He enjoys 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 a production is meant 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 you have in mind.”

Haidle tinkered with it until the end this time, altering lines that didn’t work and adding dialogue for the actors who now have to walk across the big stage of the Roundabout Theater Company’s American Airlines Theater.

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

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

“I am a terrible actor. Horrible,” he laughs. “I didn’t think of it as my play. I was like, ‘Come on, give me more lines, man. My part could be much better.


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