Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays Written by Billy Crystal. Directed by Des McAnuff. Additional material by Alan Zweibel. Scenic design by David F. Weiner. Lighting design by David Lee Cuthbert. Production design by Michael Clark. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kenneydy, John Shivers. Clothing stylist David C. Woolard. Technical supervisor Don Gilmore-DSG Entertainment. 700 Sundays was originally produced by the La Jolla Playhouse, Des McAnuff, Artistic Director & Terrence Dwyer, Managing Director. Presented in association with Clear Channel Entertainment.
Does Broadway need seven one-person shows running concurrently? Devotees of plays with characters and conflict would likely argue no; frankly, I'd be inclined to agree. But the occasional solo venture does justify itself as an actual work of theatre. You need look no further than 44th Street to find two - one, Golda's Balcony, is closing in January; the other just opened across the street at the Broadhurst and is scheduled to run through March, but will surely last as long as its star wants it to.
That would be 700 Sundays, written by and starring Billy Crystal. And were it not for Hugh Jackman's taking the town by storm last season, this would be the most auspicious and energetic Broadway debut for an established performer in years. That it's taken Crystal this long to arrive is unfortunate - he so long ago conquered comedy, film, and television that he could have (and should have) shown up long before now.
Still, better late than never. Crystal glitters in this richly satisfying vehicle, and demonstrates that his bubbly, charismatic presence and laid-back acting ability need not be confined to the screen. He displays the type of effortless, easygoing rapport with the audience that many performers can strive a lifetime to perfect, proving himself a genuine theatre star. Under most circumstances, that alone would be refreshing and welcoming enough.
Better still is that, unlike Jackman, he's appearing in a show worthy of his estimable talents. It helps that he wrote it himself, of course, though it should be mentioned that the Playbill credits Alan Zweibel with contributing "additional material." Regardless, the story is pure, nearly flawless Crystal, tracking him from birth through his Jewish upbringing and to the present day in hilarious and vividly moving fashion.
Yet this is not a self-involved chronicle. Rather, the show is a loving look at the people who helped Crystal get where he is today: his family. He paints loving portraits of them all: his enterprising uncle Milt, who played a major role in the jazz world (he founded the Commodore label and introduced the young Crystal to many major music names); his other uncle Berns; his aunt Sheila, who must deal with a lesbian daughter and intolerant husband; and his grandparents, including an oddly encouraging (but flatulent) grandfather.
Most important, however, were his parents: His hardworking father Jack died suddenly when Crystal was 15 - the play's title refers to the amount of time Crystal had with him - and his mother Helen had to bravely soldier on after Jack's death. She became his greatest hero, Crystal explains, his voice tinged with pride, awe, and even a bit of sadness. (She passed away following a stroke in 2001.) They were his two most important teachers, and instructed him on how to lead a successful, loving life; Crystal's late-show card game with God, in which he realizes the depths of his blessings and what he learned from his parents, is perhaps the single most moving scene currently on Broadway.
There's no shortage of poignancy in Crystal's tale, but laughs are his preferred method of paying tribute. Okay, a few bits could be dropped into almost any show - a riff on how the Kennedys might behave if they were Jewish, the ribald Catskill comic that introduced Crystal to comedy. Other moments are more germane, such as his recollection of an unexpectedly violent high-school basketball game in the wake of his father's death. But he's never sharper or funnier than during an almost epic live re-enactment of a silent home movie depicting a family backyard barbecue, in which genial good feelings give way to uproariously rabid annoyance.
Crystal has top-notch support: With his directing work here, we can officially forgive Des McAnuff for helming Dracula earlier this season. McAnuff keeps the action fluid, the pacing brisk, and the show precisely focused in a way that always keeps Crystal looking, sounding, and communicating his best. David F. Weiner's scenic design, which represents Crystal's childhood home, John Shivers's sound, and David Lee Cuthbert's lighting are similarly excellent contributions. More important are Michael Clark's projections, which pepper the play with family photos and film clips, assisting Crystal in bringing the past - and his family - back to life for our amusement and enlightenment.
Not that Crystal needs the help. He's the kind of masterful storyteller and engaging presence who should have a one-man show on Broadway if anyone must. And one can only hope that after a debut this energizing and accomplished, he won't stay away long. (Hasn't he been auditioning for a starring role in a Broadway musical with each of his eight Oscar hosting gigs?) Hopefully, 700 Sundays won't be all we see from him, but if it is, this unforgettable show is more than enough.