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It can’t be said that Billy Crystal doesn’t know his audience. They eat up his menu of Jews, jazz and baseball, wrapped in Catskills-inspired comedy and heartfelt Mom-and-Pop sentiment. Back on Broadway with 700 Sundays almost a decade after the solo stage memoir broke box office records and landed him a special Tony Award, Crystal again shows his gift for taking an Eisenhower-era childhood that was both ordinary and exceptional, and rendering it universal for a nostalgic public. Whether or not our experience overlaps with that of the hardworking performer, his family reminiscences strike chords.
Developed at La Jolla Playhouse with director Des McAnuff before the original sell-out 2004 Broadway run on this same stage, 700 Sundays is both a deeply personal rite and a precision-tooled machine. Crystal wrote the show, with additional material by television comedy veteran Alan Zweibel, an original member of the Saturday Night Live writing team, and has performed it post-Broadway in extensive tour dates. (The memoir has also since been published in bestselling book form.) Judging by the stellar grosses for the first preview week of this return engagement, the market is far from tapped-out.
The show is mostly unchanged aside from minor updates, such as the obligatory Obamacare joke. It’s basically the same monologue embellished with 8mm home movies and photographs beamed onto designer David F. Weiner’s representation of Crystal’s childhood home in suburban Long Beach, Long Island. The most significant addition is a coda during which Crystal talks about turning 65 and feeling the desire to revisit what he describes as “the greatest thrill of my career.” He also shares a lovely anecdote about seeing Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof at the Imperial Theatre when he was 16, a year after losing his father, marveling that he’s now in that Broadway legend’s old dressing room.
Much of the appeal of 700 Sundays lies in the savvy balance Crystal brings to his scrapbook of memories. On one hand there are extraordinary childhood episodes – a nervous encounter with a local Mafioso; watching Mickey Mantle hit a home run for the Yankees; being taken to his first movie by Billie Holiday. This is not the guy who hosted the Oscars 800 times talking to us. It’s an awestruck kid who got to rub shoulders with the coolest of jazz artists via his uncle Milt Gabler’s independent Commodore Records label and the concerts organized and emceed by Crystal’s father, Jack.
On the other hand, there’s the deli platter of relatable human experience in stories of his flatulent Austrian-immigrant grandfather, his scary uncle with an endless trove of dirty jokes, his chain-smoking aunt, and his lovable, filter-free grandma, who once asked Louis Armstrong, “Louis, have you ever tried just coughing it up?” Many of us have some variation of these folks in our own families, even if they don’t spout Yiddishisms over supper. In ways both funny and poignant, Crystal evokes all of our lives. The excitement he brings to his account of the arrival of a new family car, for instance, summons a moment from childhood that most of us will recall vividly.
Tracing his ambition to be a comedian back to its earliest roots, Crystal is a very likeable personality; success doesn’t appear to have robbed him of humility or gratitude. Some of his routines are milked to excess, but the appreciative laughter of the audience suggests that nobody’s complaining.
What makes 700 Sundays such a comfort-food meal, however, is its artful blend of humor and emotional heft. Overwritten as Crystal’s words often are, their sincerity comes through, even in a show that’s too tightly constructed to allow for much spontaneity. The mentions of career highs like When Harry Met Sally… or City Slickers are mere asides in the real story that he tells with a passion, warmth and vitality that seem paradoxically enriched by the mellowing effect of being almost 10 years older.
The show takes its title from the one day a week when Crystal and his siblings had unrestricted access to their dad, who often held down three jobs. Seven hundred is Crystal’s rough tally of how many of those days he shared with his father before Jack Crystal’s sudden death in 1963 after suffering a heart attack while bowling. That loss, and the death in 2001 of his mother following a stroke, permeate the show like the soft jazz that underscores sections of Crystal’s dialogue. The combination adds bittersweet music even to the happiest memories of boyhood, adolescence, maturity, marriage and professional milestones.
More than the ample laughs, Crystal’s achievement here is in forging a tender connection to everyone who has experienced or even contemplated the loss of a parent.
Venue: Imperial Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 5)
Cast: Billy Crystal
Director: Des McAnuff
Playwright: Billy Crystal; additional material by Alan Zweibel
Set designer: David F. Weiner
Lighting designer: David Lee Cuthbert
Sound designer: Steve Canyon Kennedy
Projection designer: Michael Clark
Presented by Janice Crystal, Larry Magid, Face Productions
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