Watching Billy Crystal perform 700 Sundays at the National Theatre is almost enough to make you quit telling stories of family and growing up. Crystal’s stories are so memorable, heartwarming, and funny that anyone else’s stories pale by comparison.
Crystal has resurrected his Tony Award® winning one-man show and the Washington area is fortunate to be the opening stop in a six-city limited tour. Even after a two and a half year break, Crystal has not missed a step in presenting this fast-paced comic memoir. While the show has been updated and expanded from its sold-out Broadway run, it remains an endearing and inspirational crowd-pleaser.
Though Crystal views his life through a sentimental rear view mirror, one can easily envy his near-idyllic childhood in Long Beach, New York. He grew up in a loving household that smelled of brisket and bourbon, worshipping Jack Crystal, his record store owner/ jazz concert promoter father. The show’s title refers to the number of Sundays that Crystal had with his father before his sudden death when Crystal was 15.
Many of Crystal’s most lasting memories happened on those Sundays spent with his father. When Billy was five, Jack took him on his first trip to New York City (which looked like Oz to him). He saw his first movie (“Shane”) on a Sunday with Billie Holliday herself. Young Billy first performed before a live audience at a Sunday jazz session emceed by his father. And Crystal saw his first baseball game on a Sunday, when Mickey Mantle hit a tape measure home run against the Washington Senators.
Crystal paints vivid portraits of his extended and eclectic family such as his uncle Milt, who served as a “Jewish rooster” , awakening the family in the mornings with his coughing and his flatulence. Crystal nicely balances his loving descriptions with sardonic humor. While these characters never become fully three-dimensional, they help us understand how Billy Crystal grew up to be Billy Crystal.
Crystal recounts his youthful experiences with a child-like sense of wonder, ranging from hanging out at the family’s Commodore Music Store on East 42nd Street (once described as the crummiest shrine on earth) to first seeing a comedian perform in the Catskills. Billy knew from an early age that he wanted to be a comic and was inspired by his father (who gave him a tape recorder to help him work on routines) and a host of comedy albums and TV shows.
In the second act Crystal recounts how his life changed dramatically after his father’s sudden death from a heart attack. Yet Crystal manages to infuse his stories of grieving and sadness with an ineffable humor and wonder, such as the funeral director with a lisp or the fact that jazz luminaries such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie attended Jack’s funeral. The same spirit continues when he recounts his indomitable mother’s struggles in widowhood and later in life with a stroke.
Crystal is a master at stand up comedy, as we all saw when is hosted the Academy Awards® and Grammy® shows. He is willing to pull every gimmick out of his bag of tricks, including sound and musical effects, even going down to his knees twice in the first act. A sequence in which Crystal mimes a silent home movie of a relative barbecuing is a comedic tour de force. Crystal also excels at comic voices ranging from his many relatives to jazz musicians. One highlight is a lengthy dialogue between Billy as a voice-breaking teenager and his hormone-driven, deep-voiced penis.
The show is greatly enhanced by the set (designed by David F. Weiner) which consists of an exterior of his childhood home. The three windows become screens for film footage, including 8 millimeter home movies shot by his father. The pictures of his family help the audience visualize the characters and bring the stories to life, but none are as revealing as the footage of a young Billy as a born entertainer.
When witnessing the energetic and enthusiastic performance, it is hard to believe that the boyishly charming Crystal is 61 years old. He clearly loves doing this show about the people he has loved. 700 Sundays is sentimental and even smaltzy, but it will make you want to go home and call someone you love even without Crystal’s post-standing ovation direction to do so.
Written and Performed by Billy Crystal
Additional material by Alan Zweibel
Directed by Des McAnuff
Presented by The National Theatre, Janice Crystal, Larry Magid and Face Productions
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Click here for Details, Directions and Tickets.
Peter Marks . The Post