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A CurtainUp Review
Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays
By Elyse Sommer
The show owes its colorful "Jews and jazz, brisket and bourbon" flavor to the involvement of Billy's father and uncle in the jazz world. His father managed the now legendary Commodore Record shop on East 42nd Street and his uncle founded the Commodore record producing label. However, the celebrities who were part of little Billy's Long Island childhood never overwhelm the easy to identify with saga of a close-knit, decidedly functional American family.
As Crystal's Eisenhower era youth is not quite the every-kid suburbia story, David F. Weiner's set evokes a recreation of the Long Beach brick and clapboard house on Long Island's South Shore. Te script Crystal wrote for his Broadway debut and his relaxed yet carefully calibrated performance, strongly connect him to the audience. Sure, he's a celebrity well-known for his television and film work, but by the end of 700 Sundays he's also everybody's favorite son, brother, nephew and mensch — the one Broadway star to make you stop quibbling about too many stand-up comedies masquerading as plays.
With Des McAnuff's well paced direction and some additional writing contributed by Alan Zweibel, 700 Sundays is more in a class with solo plays like I Am My Own Wife and Golda's Balcony than Whoopi: The 20th Anniversary Show. ( all of which are or were on the boards this season). The suburban house set piece isn't just a backdrop for Crystal's comic riffs but, through 8-millimeter home-made film footage periodically projected on its windows, makes it Crystal-clear (pun intended) that this tribute to the people who lived in and visited in that house has all the warmth and sweep of a play.
Despite this being more play than stand-up, and with a handkerchief-dampening second act about dealing with death and grief, there's plenty of Crystal, the comic to put a fresh sheen on even the oldest laugh lines and display his gifts as a brilliant mimic. All without relying on audience put-downs for laughs.
One comic highhlight has Crystal in the guise of his chain-smoking Aunt Sheila recount the pre-to-post-nuptial details of her daughter's "Lesbyterian" wedding. He/she notes that it's a marriage if they played "Sunrise,Sunset" and danced. Leaonard, the less open-minded husband too ends up earning a place in Crystal's album of lovable heroes. If there were a laugh meter to register the audience response, the hilarious Chaplinesque replay of a family barbecue would have sent the indicator over the top.
A man sitting next to my husband asked him at the intermission "Do you think that this is most appealing to people who are Jewish and raised in New York?" It seems that he liked what he'd seen so far but, being neither Jewish or a New York native, seemed concerned that he might not be getting his full $100 ticket's worth of laughs. He needn't have worried. It won't detract from your enjoyment to be familiar with some of the New York City landmarks mentioned and pictured and people with their own Borscht Belt memories might just be a tad more taken with Crystal's recollections about a family holiday at Kutscher's Borscht Belt resort. But then what's not to laugh at when he describes the dining room as "1,000 Jews fighting for end cuts" and brings a familiar matchmaking gag up to date by stating that if Osama Bin Laden showed up he'd be asked if he were single. So, no, you definitely don't have to be Jewish or a native New Yorker to respond to Crystal's pixyish charisma and this heartfelt tribute to the family who made him the likeable as well as successful fifty-six-year-old he is.
While the show features the entire Crystal clan and their friends, 700 Sundays' inspirational wellspring and true hero is Jack Crystal. Because Sunday was the only day his hard-working father wasn't working it was the acme of young Billy's week and, since his father died when he was only fifteen, there were just 700 of these Sundays.
Crystal doesn't neglect his beloved mother who valiantly went back to school after his father's death so that she could get a job and send Billy to college. If her less sudden death and at a ripe old age somewhat overdoes the play's tear-jerking aspects , it does showcase Crystal's skill at building a leitmotif. We see this in the "boulder of grief " the teen-aged and mature Crystal carries around after his parents' deaths — and again when he brings his Portnoy-like early sexual self-involvement round robin by rejoicing about how nice it was to have sex with someone other than himself during the early days of his marriage in the Long Beach homestead.
Lucky for us, Crystal doesn't allow himself , or us, to wallow in melancholy too long. He winds things up with an optimistic and unapolegetically schmaltzy sum-up of his blessings. We can count it as one of this season's blessings to have Crystal on Broadway.
The above review was posted when it opened with the same team at the Broadhurst Theater on December 5, 2004 where it played an extended run through May 21, 2005. Given the ticket sales during the first week, don't be surprised if it extends again.