Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 13, 2013
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. Projection design by Michael Clark. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy.
First things first: This return engagement, which just opened at the Imperial, is fundamentally the same entertainment that premiered at the Broadhurst almost exactly nine years ago. I detected at most a few minuscule changes, mostly additions to count as relevant references for today (Senator Rand Paul got a less-than-flattering name check at one point, for example) — Crystal has found a formula that works for him, and he is loath to stray too far from it. If you’re expecting new revelations or, for that matter, many new jokes, you won’t be satisfied with what Crystal delivers.
But if you didn’t see it the first time around, for whatever reason — tickets were all but impossible to come by — 700 Sundays has not lost much of its spark. Focusing most heavily on the lives of Crystal’s parents (the title refers to the approximate amount of time — 15 years — Crystal had with his father; his mother lived nearly 40 years longer), it kindles a warm, sepia-toned view of the 50s and 60s that leaves fewer issues unexplored than you might expect.
For, as it happens, Crystal (who was born in 1948) was witness to a shocking amount of social history. His uncle founded a seminal jazz label, Commodore Records, that preserved some of the biggest names of the era, and the young Crystal mingled with them as effortlessly as you can imagine from the gregarious headliner today. (He made his debut as a dancer — doing a unique one-legged tap step — at one of his father’s side concerts; and Billie Holliday took him to see his first movie, Shane.) And as the story progresses, it gradually becomes clear how encouraging influences such as these and others — there are also references to a “lesbyterian” wedding — melded into the melting-pot, all-inclusive style that has characterized most of Crystal’s career.
So you never need to worry about the laughs not coming. They do, and they flow equally as easily from wily turns of phrase as wry physicality (two highlights include Crystal recreating his own birth and a silent home movie depicting a bizarrely contentious barbecue); when Crystal must digress into more familiar “bits,” such as the trip to the Catskills that ignited his passion for comedy, just enough is fresh and unexpected to feel like his personal property. You shouldn’t be surprised if tears flow as well; Crystal’s dad’s death after they had a fight, his and his mother’s brave struggle to move on in the difficult aftermath, and even the story of his marriage to his wife (now 43 years and counting) manage to be wrenchingly honest while stopping just short of maudlin.
This, however, is no threadbare confessional — Crystal and director Des McAnuff have seen to that. (As has Alan Zweibel, who is credited with providing “additional material.”) Everything eventually always circles back to fun, which seems like the only lens through which Crystal has ever viewed his life. His enjoyment, of the people around him, the things he did, and the places that even today are so important to him (David F. Weiner designed the set that subtly recalls the house in which Crystal grew up). So you never feel as manipulated as you otherwise might; you’re always in the careful hands of a man who knows perfectly well how to work the room.
Maybe too well. If there’s a flaw with 700 Sundays in this incarnation, it’s that it’s a little too slick. Crystal seems a shade more mechanical in recalling his stories this time, and there were times during the performance I attended, usually when the audience — whether as a collective or specific individuals — that he seemed reluctant to drift too far from autopilot mode. Approachable, even lovable, as he and his characters might be, the glimpses you can sometimes catch of the gears turning beneath it all diminish the overall impact a bit.
Even so, Crystal’s genuine affection and attention to detail shine through throughout, and it’s difficult not to fall as in love with his family as he so obviously is. If his show is a gentle, good-natured reminder that the time we have with the people we care about is perilously finite, it also helps you better appreciate the moments you have. And for the two-plus hours of 700 Sundays, Crystal and all those closest to him give you plenty to appreciate indeed.