HBO’s latest front-row seat to a theatrical one-man play shifts from Mike Tyson to Billy Crystal, translating the latter’s comic memoir “700 Sundays” into a TV special. Nostalgic and deeply personal — at a full two hours, there’s no escaping that the show amounts to a whole lot of Crystal — it’s heavily skewed toward an audience old enough to appreciate references to Mickey Mantle, Billie Holiday, and a mock Yiddish rant where the only English word is “retail.” Ultimately, Crystal’s joy in performing, and appreciation for how he got from there to here, shines through, but the special is still best consumed in pieces.
Crystal derived the title from the precious weekend days he got to spend with his hard-working father, a record-store owner and jazz producer who dropped dead when Crystal was just 15.
Crystal’s father and uncle brought him into contact early with showbiz and music (he recalls seeing the movie “Shane” with Holiday as a child), but the material careens all over the place, from puberty (and inevitably, masturbation) to family foibles to his undersized experiences playing high-school basketball.
Those who have been exposed to Crystal’s shtick through the years — back to his routine about earning the nickname “Face” on “Saturday Night Live” — will find a lot that’s familiar. Others will be able to admire his energy and verbal and physical dexterity (such as when he replicates old home movies), provided they don’t mind a fair amount of saccharine and schmaltz sprinkled over the laughs.
Directed by Des McAnuff, the TV version does a fine job of keeping the presentation interesting and varied, including the way videoclips are woven in to the editing. It is also, clearly, a performance, not standup, although Crystal, jazz aficionado that he is, can’t resist occasionally riffing with the audience.
Ultimately, the underlying message of “700 Sundays” is one about life’s fleeting and unpredictable nature — how you never really know how long you’ll have with someone, so savor those precious moments while they last.
At its best, Crystal’s autobiographical trip makes one appreciate such things, as well as his own undeniably triumphant journey. Yet while it amounts to a quibble, perhaps, it’s still fair to say that when faced with the concept of making every moment count, it’s easy to wish “700 Sundays” was a bit more judicious about how many moments it occupies.