Crystal Is Long On Charm in '700 Sundays'
Comic Takes Sentimental Journey Through Youth
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009
Early in his big-time funny, one-man play, "700 Sundays," Billy Crystal shows home movies of himself as a child, tap-tap-tap-dancing away, like a tiny windup entertainment machine.
The kid is beaming, a most happy little fella, and you are instantly struck by how in his element Crystal seems, even then. Is there, you start to wonder, a gene for "ready for my close-up"? Gosh darn it, was ever this guy to the one-liner born!
The pure joy of stand-up is evident in the vehicle, which Crystal brings to the National Theatre, having performed it to sold-out houses on Broadway for six months in late 2004 and early 2005. He clearly still wants us to feel the love, because he keeps taking the show on the road: The nine-day Washington engagement, which began Tuesday, launches a second multi-city tour. And once Crystal starts his comic tap routine, it's as if he never wants the music to stop.
That's a polite way of saying that "700 Sundays" goes on a bit. Strike that -- it's as long as "Hamlet." (I kid you not; we sat down at 8 and got out just before 11.) And more than some of his gifted peers, such as Steve Martin or Martin Short, Crystal can overplay the patting of his own back: We're thrilled for him that life has been so good, that he dearly loved his parents and he's been in a rewarding marriage for 39 years and the kids and grandkids are great and he's spent a whole career doing exactly what he loves doing. Actually you do discover through "700 Sundays" that a limit exists to how thrilled you can be.
Then again, there is something refreshing about a celebrity confessional in which the most serious family dysfunction exposed is an uncle with digestive issues. (No one does Jewish relatives with gas better than Crystal.) Mercifully, too, he goes easy on the irony pedal, and he doesn't air dirty laundry -- except when he's really talking about laundry.
Most crucially, Crystal's writing, with an assist from Alan Zweibel, is often hilarious, and some of the visual gags are nonpareil. Crystal -- nicknamed "Face" as a boy by one of his father's jazz-musician friends -- is not only a great mimic but also a terrific physical comic. The elasticity of that face recalls the clowning of Sid Caesar, among others. And though you would not label him a cerebral comedian, he cushions even the potty jokes with a degree of wit.
The show is as autobiographical as they come, but not showbiz gossipy. Although he alludes briefly to his work life -- Jack Palance, his co-star in "City Slickers," gets a mention, and a photo of Crystal as Sammy Davis Jr. flashes on one of three screens embedded in the set -- this is strictly about growing up, mostly in the '50s and early '60s. If the evening has a central figure, it's his enigmatic father, Jack, who died of a heart attack at a Long Island bowling alley when Crystal was 15; "700" is the number of Sundays the comedian estimates he got to spend with him.
Roaming a stage framed by a mock-up of a typical Long Island tract home, of the sort in which Crystal was raised in the South Shore city of Long Beach, the comedian reflects on the deep impact his father's life and death had on him. His mother is evocatively conjured, too, but it was his father's livelihood, as proprietor of a Manhattan record shop, the Commodore -- which evolved into a haven for jazz lovers and musicians alike -- that supplies "700 Sundays" with some of its warmest and smoothest tones.
You learn, for example, that his father provided musicians all sorts of help when they came to him, and that after his death, Count Basie and Duke Ellington came to his viewing. Unlikeliest of all is the story of the woman who took Crystal to "Shane," his very first movie: none other than the legendary Billie Holliday. (She recorded her signature song, "Strange Fruit," with Crystal's record-producer uncle Milt.)
Under Des McAnuff's direction, these surprising revelations are skillfully mingled with some virtuoso bits, especially in Act 1, when Crystal reenacts in Chaplinesque fashion a film of a relative at the charcoal grill. The storytelling in Act 2 turns more mawkish, an impulse you wish Crystal could have resisted. But even with its sentimental excesses, the self-assured, prodigiously charming host makes the evening itself hard to resist.
700 Sundays, written and performed by Billy Crystal, with additional material by Alan Zweibel. Directed by Des McAnuff. Set, David F. Weiner; lighting, David Lee Cuthbert; projections, Michael Clark; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy and John Shivers. About 2 hours 50 minutes.