While Billy Crystal makes much of the fact that his family car as a kid was a clunky, gray-on-gray Plymouth Belvedere, the comedian’s “700 Sundays” is as sleekly tooled and polished as a brand-new red Corvette. But there’s a nagging conflict inherent in a solo show that’s both a well-oiled machine and a love letter to the star’s late parents: The slickness and overscripted lack of spontaneity tarnish the sincerity, no matter how heartfelt the emotion behind it. That said, Crystal is a consummate professional who knows exactly what his middle-age, middle-class, middlebrow New York audience wants. The huge advance ticket sales indicate they’re lapping it up.
Developed in a workshop production in the spring at La Jolla Playhouse by artistic director Des McAnuff, the show bears the hallmarks of diligent honing, laced with a judicious sprinkling of profanity to give the sentimental material a semblance of edge. But while there’s nothing to be sniffed at in a robust entertainment that confidently blends comedy and poignancy, there’s also an inescapable artificiality in the show, which wants to be both a play and a personal reflection.
Solo shows are sharpest — as in “Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance” or Mario Cantone’s “Laugh Whore,” to pick from the current Broadway crop — when the performer is not just engaging the audience but bouncing material off them, bringing an element of immediacy and electricity. There’s little room for that in Crystal’s show, where even the pauses for laughs, applause or empathetic “ohhh” and “awww” noises seem calibrated with a Swiss mechanism — often actively invited by the star with a gesture or a grin — right down to a breathing spell near the end that allows for a conclusion that also functions as a built-in encore.
Centerstage in front of David E. Weiner’s flat suburban home set, Crystal spends the opening act in recollections of his childhood in Long Beach, Long Island, starting with a scrape when his father Jack’s beloved Plymouth was hit by a local Mafioso. When the towering thug suggests keeping cops and insurance companies out of it and offers to buy the Crystals any new car of their choosing, Jack insists instead on fixing the existing vehicle, his refusal to be morally compromised making him 9-year-old Billy’s first hero.
His father died when Billy was 15, giving the boy roughly 700 Sundays with the man he idolized. Crystal reminisces about the period with a mix of dewy-eyed awe and admiration, and a more evolved version of the glib shtick of the Catskills comedians he grew up wanting to emulate.
He touches comically on his birth and circumcision (“In Yiddish, bris means blood and buffet.”) and introduces his family members, making extensive use of home movies and photographs, effectively beamed onto three screens that double as the house’s windows. Jazz was the soundtrack of Crystal’s childhood, through his family’s music store and his Uncle Milt’s work as a producer for Decca Records of such greats as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Crytal’s first memory of going to the movies is seeing “Shane” on the lap of Billie Holiday.
Some of Crystal’s recollections are vignettes, others are extended riffs on characters like his cranky, hard-of-hearing, chronically flatulent grandpa, or his brittle, chain-smoking Aunt Sheila. The latter’s telephone account of taking her reluctant shmendrick of a husband to their lesbian daughter’s wedding (“I made him a Judy Garland. That’s nine Seconals and half a quart of vodka, then I stuffed him in the pet carrier and put him on the plane.”) is funny but goes on too long, becoming a standalone routine that slows the flow.
Crystal’s passion for sports gets a significant airing, starting with his first time in the stands at a Yankee Stadium baseball game in 1956, prompting a rhapsodic description of a Mickey Mantle home run. There’s also a long but amusing recap in the second act of the unspectacular Long Beach basketball team, of which Crystal was made a member out of pity, going up against the towering hotshots from Erasmus High.
Crystal acknowledges the comics and entertainers who influenced him as a kid, and whose material he plucked from to perform for his family and at school: Ernie Kovacs, Phil Silvers, Alan King, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Sammy Davis Jr. And as he moves into his teens, he deals with his discovery of sex, or more notably, of masturbation, employing anything from a bagel to a 45 record: “To this day, I can’t look Petula Clark in the eye.”
But as the show progresses, the humor increasingly cohabits with the sense of loss implanted by his father’s sudden death of a heart attack while bowling, and more recently, of his mother, following a stroke. A final, heated exchange with his father over neglecting his chemistry studies to pine over a girl fuels guilt in Crystal, which adds to what he describes as a boulder of grief.
There’s no doubting that the loss of Crystal’s parents was a tremendous one, as it is for most people. But there’s something about parading that loss in six performances a week — backed faintly by a solo voice in a melancholy chant and graced by delicate lighting effects — that blunts the pathos. This sense of a carefully calculated effect and of false humility is underlined by Crystal’s limitations as an actor.
Much of the overconstructed dialogue in this part in particular feels either literary or trite: “It’s called a shiva, but to me it was shiver because Dad’s death made me tremble.” Crystal’s reflections on “the otherness” of grief, or the strained poetry of a sapling bending in the wind outside the hospital where his mother was recovering during his childhood, which had become a gnarled, old tree when she again was hospitalized years later after the stroke, threaten to turn genuine grief into a prosaic shmaltzfest.
Still, they’ll love it in Boca Raton.