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Down memory lane with Billy Crystal

January 14, 2006|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

Call it: When Billy Met Tony.

Billy Crystal has won multiple Emmy Awards, all for playing himself as emcee of the Academy Awards telecast. So it's no surprise that for his stage debut -- a one-man show that last year played to sold-out crowds on Broadway and won a Tony Award for best special theatrical event -- he chose to play the role he knows best: Billy Crystal.

"700 Sundays," which opened Thursday at the Wilshire Theatre, is many things, but at its heart it's an unabashed valentine from a son to his parents. (The title refers to the number of Sundays Crystal spent with his father, who passed away when the comedian-to-be was 15.)

Theatergoers yearning for a Carnegie Deli-sized portion of nostalgia will no doubt devour "700 Sundays," which features old-fashioned cars, old-fashioned jokes (including groaners about Mamie Eisenhower and, yes, even Eleanor Roosevelt) and ends with Crystal telling the audience to go home and call your loved ones. At times, this sentimentality threatens to turn the show into a mushy, 2 1/2 -hour-plus AT&T commercial. But one thing keeps "700 Sundays" from feeling like a running time instead of a title: Billy Crystal, the comedian.

Since leaving "Saturday Night Live" to become a movie star and awards show host, it's been easy to forget Billy Crystal, the comedian, and think only of Billy Crystal, the celebrity. But Crystal is first and foremost a comic, and the presence of laugh luminaries like Jay Leno and Larry David in the audience on opening night was a testament to his comedic reputation.

Perhaps due to the celebrity crowd and opening-night jitters, Thursday's performance was an off night. Crystal flubbed lines and stumbled through his patter. Still, this barely affected the show as a whole. Crystal may be relatively new to dramatic stage monologues, but he knows how to deliver a punch line and win over a crowd.

Part of this smoothness -- and the overall audience-friendly nature of the show -- must be credited, in part, to veteran director Des McAnuff, whose work is so transparent that every line, gesture and facial expression in the show feels 100% Crystal.

The most impressive aspect of "700 Sundays" is that it showcases Crystal's incredible ability to take on other personas. It may be more mimicry than pure acting, but no matter. An extended monologue in which he plays his Aunt Sheila from Boca Raton is both funny and touching as Crystal tells the story of his Jewish relatives attending the "lesbiterian" wedding in San Francisco.

The show never again reaches this height, though it continues to entertain thanks to Crystal's mastery of the one-liner. After the Aunt Sheila bit, the next sharpest sequence is one in which Crystal reenacts the first Catskill comic he saw perform live. This Borscht Belt style of bada-bing rim-shot humor is Crystal's bread and butter. "700 Sundays" reveals that he's been doing this for more than 50 years -- and indeed, few do it better.

Throughout "700 Sundays," Crystal interrupts the proceedings to toss out political jokes or offer asides to the audience, only to catch himself and say, "back to the play." It's a good-enough gag. But the problem is: There is no play.

"700 Sundays" is three separate stage spectacles fighting like kids to be heard at the dinner table. First, there is Crystal's soliloquies about his parents; second, there are the recollections of Crystal's idyllic youth (imagine Philip Roth as illustrated by Norman Rockwell); and third are the vaudeville-style routines in which Crystal imitates various members of his family.

Sadly, all three of these elements never quite gel, and the result is a theater piece that feels overlong and disjointed. Scenes awkwardly transition from comedy to poignancy or end with self-congratulatory, emotional "tah-dahs" that beg for applause (and, to be fair, usually get it).

There are some nice moments with Super-8 footage of Crystal's family -- not to mention an inventive "take" on home-movie making -- but these audio-visual embellishments cannot hide the lack of stagecraft or the problems in the script.

Unlike other celebrity solo shows, the shortcomings in "700 Sundays" cannot simply be blamed on name-dropping or blandness of its star's personal life. Crystal's family includes some real characters and a fascinating back story: His father and uncle were key contributors to the New York jazz scene -- material that, with the right playwright (Donald Margulies comes to mind) could have been crafted into a wonderful tragicomic play.

There would seem to be many formats that could tie together the interesting anecdotes, colorful personalities and well-honed one-liners contained in "700 Sundays." Yet as assembled by Crystal and his co-writer, Alan Zweibel, the current form never comes close to achieving the alchemy that Elaine Stritch and John Lahr found in their script for "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty," the 2002 work that represents the gold standard for contemporary onstage autobiography.

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