With “700 Sundays,” his one-person tribute to his own Long Island childhood — and childhoods in general — Billy Crystal focuses not so much on what made his childhood different and special than what made it the same as everyone else’s. Anybody here with an overly opinionated aunt? Have you ever lost a loved one? Remember when your family got a new car, or when you had your first crush? Here, Crystal seems to be saying, this bit’s for you. As the consummate host of the Oscars, Crystal has perfected how to be the star of the evening and yet make the show about the audience, and he deftly manages to do the same thing with his own memoir, a combination of Cosby-esque storytelling stand-up and sentimental family portrait.
There are few performers who could pull off with such apparent ease a nearly three-hour solo show in large part about grief. The title refers to the fact that Billy, the youngest of three boys, was only 15 when his father, Jack, passed away, which means that Billy had about 700 Sundays with him. Sunday was the day hard-working Jack devoted to his family, taking Billy to see the Yankees, or to stare at the fake stars on the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal.
It must be said that “700 Sundays” provides a schmear of schmaltz along with its schtick. But even skeptics — and count me among the cringers at some of the metaphors Crystal and his collaborator Alan Zweibel employ — can find something special in this show.
That’s because Crystal is quite simply a fantastic performer. While he’s ably assisted in achieving the show’s polish by director Des McAnuff, Crystal possesses a gift that’s both natural and fully honed. He seems completely himself on stage, being himself — warm, charming, sincere — rather than playing himself. It helps that he’s still kid-like: he’s got those big cheeks that must have been pinched a million times during his childhood by adoring relatives; even at 57, when he smiles, they puff out even more with unforced adorability.
The truth is, Crystal really did have a unique childhood, not at all a generic one. His father ran a music store that sold jazz records and produced concerts of legendary figures, and his uncle Milt Gabler ran a jazz label and went on to produce “Rock Around the Clock.” Young Billy saw his very first movie, “Shane,” sitting on the lap of family friend Billie Holliday, and yet as depicted in “700 Sundays,” the scene isn’t about the fame of his first film companion but a boy’s discovery of movie magic.
Set designer David F. Weiner has re-created a façade of the house Crystal grew up in, and family stills and real home movies are projected onto the faux windows to add depth to the tales. It’s all a tightly constructed, nostalgic tour of mid-century middle Americana, as Crystal locates his stories in relation to events people alive at the time never forget: the Kennedy assassination, Sputnik, the appearance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
While he ultimately takes the story beyond 9/11 to the passing of his stalwart mother, stricken with a stroke later in life, there’s barely a mention of his career beyond its roots in the borscht-belt comedy he witnessed in the Catskills. No mention of the Oscars, no behind-the-scenes gossip from his films. Just the stuff we can relate to, with an uncontroversial message. “Even in your worst pain,” Crystal tells us, “it’s still OK to laugh.”
As a comic, Crystal knows exactly how to resemble having an edge without ever approaching offensiveness. At times, such as when he relates a story of playing a basketball game against players twice his size and ability, his stand-up craft approaches that of his comic hero, Bill Cosby. While it may not have been apparent before, Crystal’s resemblance to Cosby becomes unavoidable — the easy-going accessibility, the obvious affection for the child within, the unhesitant love for family.
And most of all, the sense that the laughter emerges not from surprises, but from recognition. In some unmistakable way, their childhoods are our childhoods.