The one-person show/ showcase was undoubtedly a trend this fall as Whoopi Goldberg brought humor to her political opinions through Fontaine, the drug-saturated junkie, the talented but abrasive Mario Cantone mimicked and mocked celebrities, and the international doyenne Dame Edna channeled through Barry Humphries. What the genre lacked but finally got was the one-person reality-based Billy Crystal’s "700 Sundays."
This is a loving, funny, occasionally coarse but mostly nostalgic autobiographical theater piece that delivers a story plus solid entertainment. Crystal, an extraordinarily talented entertainer making his Broadway debut, has written (with additional material by Alan Zweibel) a generously scripted tribute to his family, notably his parents.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Crystal’s wordy but wittily informed narrative is graced with a nice mixture of shtick and sentimentality. It is directed with well-observed intervention by Des McAnuff, who also guided the original workshop at La Jolla Theater last spring. Happily, the collaboration makes "700 Sundays" seem more like a heartfelt play than simply a self-serving showcase for a stand-up comedian.
Despite impressive production values that include set designer David E. Weiner’s flat backdrop of the Crystal’s family home in Long Beach, Long Island, and the use of slides and home movies of the family in various activities through the years, "700 Sundays" relies mainly on Crystal’s ingratiating charm and storytelling ability.
Crystal begins his mainly chronological narrative at the time he is born and his circumcision – he remembers it well. As audiences are always interested in hearing about the connections between entertainers and the mob, Crystal has one for the books – he pays tribute to his father, Jack, who would become the nine-year-old Billy’s first hero when he refuses a mobster’s gift of a new car. It seems that the mobster who grazed the family car didn’t want the insurance company or police notified. Jack died when Billy was 15. The title comes from the number of Sundays Crystal clocked with his father before his death.
Crystal’s anecdote-propelled script also includes bits about his life-long passion for sports. But it his recollections of the great and famed jazz musicians – such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald who flocked to the family’s now legendary Commodore Record Shop on East 42nd Street and often came to their home – that are revelatory. Crystal’s uncle founded the Commodore record-producing label. He says he hasn’t forgotten the time that Billie Holiday took him to the movies to see "Shane," and he sat on her lap.
Crystal is especially winning when he assumes the identity of the more eccentric members of the family. His cantankerous grandfather’s flatulence becomes a virtual soundtrack in Crystal memory. Even funnier is his perception, dramatized as a phone conversation, of his earthy chain-smoking Aunt Sheila getting her husband to attend their lesbian daughter’s "Lesbyterian" wedding. A story about a family holiday at Kutschers, the famed (and still going strong) Borscht-Belt resort, where you can find "1,000 Jews in the dining room fighting for end cuts," is a hoot.
Apparently born to be a performer, Crystal began entertaining in his teens for his family and at school, of course, stealing material from only the best comedians. He also admits that entertaining himself ("masturbation") was a major part of Crystal’s adolescence and sexual awakening. With maturity and marriage, he found out "how nice it was to have sex with someone other than himself."
Crystal allows the happier memories to serve him as he does the sadder ones that include the death of his father from a heart attack at a bowling alley, and his mother from a stroke. This portion may strike some, but not me, as being unnecessarily maudlin. The many pleasures and joys of "700 Sundays" are never diminished by the few sorrows, only ultimately anchored by them. HHH
"700 Sundays," Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, through March 6. $101.25 to $76.25.
The key: Don’t miss; You won’t feel cheated; Maybe you should have stayed home; H Don’t blame us.
All Shook Up, Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway. Previews begin February 20.
Avenue Q, Golden Theater, 252 West 45.
Beauty and the Beast, Lunt-Fontanne Theater, Broadway & 46.
Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays, Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44.
Brooklyn the Musical, H Plymouth Theater, 236 West 45.
Brooklyn Boy, Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47. Previews.
Chicago, Ambassador Theater, 219 West 49.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hilton Theater, 213 West 42. Opens March 27.
Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance, Music Box Theater.
Democracy, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Imperial Theater, 249 West 45. Previews begin January 31.
Fiddler on the Roof, HH Minskoff Theater, 200 West 45. Harvey Fierstein plays Tevye through March 27.
Gem of the Ocean, Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48.
Good Vibrations, Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49. Previews.
Hairspray, Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52.
Julius Caesar, Belasco Theater, 111 West 44. Opens March 8.
La Cage Aux Folles, Marquis Theater, Broadway and West 46.
Little Women, Virginia Theater, 245 West 52.
Mamma Mia!, Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway.
Movin’ Out, Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46.
Pacific Overtures, Studio 54, 254 West 54. Closes January 30.
Rent, Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41.
Spamalot, Shubert Theater, 225 West 44. Previews begin February 14.
Sweet Charity, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45. Previews begin April 4.
The Glass Menagerie, Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47. Previews begin February 24.
The Lion King, New Amsterdam Theater, Broadway and 42.
The Phantom of the Opera, Majestic Theater, 247 West 44.
The Producers, St. James Theater, 246 West 44.
Twelve Angry Men, American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42.
Whoopi, Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45. Through January 30.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Longacre Theater, 220 West 48. Previews begin March 12.
Wicked Gershwin Theater, 222 West 51.
Wonderful Town, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45. Closes January 30.
A Number, NY Theater Workshop, 79 East 4. Through February 13.
After the Ball, Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22. Through January 30.
Belle Epoque, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65.
The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue. Opens February 24.
Blue Man Group, Astor Place, 434 Lafayette, 212-254-4370.
Bug, Barrow Street Theater at 7 Avenue.
Cell Phones, The Annex Theater, 74 A East 4. 212-475-7710.
The Controversy of Valladolid, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette. Opens February 8.
Cookin’, Minetta Lane, 18 Minetta Lane, 212-420-8000.
Counsellor-At-Law, Theater at St. Clements, 423 West 46. 212-868-4444.
Dessa Rose, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65.
Doubt, New York City Center Stage, 131 West 55.
Falling Off Broadway, Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42.
Fat Pig, Lucille Lortel, 121 Christopher Street.
Ghetto Superstar: The Man that I Am, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette. Opens February 10.
Forbidden Broadway Special Victims Unit, HHHH Douglas Fairbanks Theater, 432 West 42.
Hiding Behind Comets, 212 West 29. Opens February 17.
Hurlyburly, Theater Row, 410 West 42.
I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Westside Theater, 407 West 43.
Jewtopia, Westside Theater, 407 West 43rd.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette. Opens February 8.
Lone Star Love, John Houseman Theater, 450 West 42.
Menopause, the Musical, Playhouse 91, 316 East 91, 212-831-2000.
Modern Orthodox, Dodger Stages, 340 West 50.
Musical of Musicals, Dodger Stages, 350 West 50. Previews begin February 2.
Newsical, Upstairs at Studio 54, 254 West 54.
Nine Parts of Desire, MET, 55 Mercer.
Picon Pie, Lamb’s Theater, 130 West 44.
Pyretown, Urban Stages, 259 West 30, 212-868-4444. Opens January 29.
Romance, Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20. Opens February 9.
Shockheaded Peter, Little Shubert Theater, 422 West 42. Previews begin February 11.
Slava’s Snowshow, HH Union Square Theater, 100 East 17.
Stomp, Orpheum Theater, Second Avenue at 8.
Souvenir, York Theater, 619 Lexington.
Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding St. Luke’s Church, 308 West 46.
Under the Bridge, Zipper Theater, 336 West 37.
Wuthering High, Sol Goldman Theater, 344 East 14. Previews begin February 10.
Broadway and Off-Broadway reservations can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200; Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; and Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100.