Cracked Crystal

Too much nostalgia and not enough spark spoil the comedian's autobiographical show

There comes a point in many a celebrity's career when he or she feels compelled to get out of the fast lane for a while and concentrate on something more wholesome. Some, like Paul Newman, make salad dressing; others, such as Madonna, write children's books. Then there are those who take it upon themselves to turn the events of their lives into solo theater productions.

That Billy Crystal should have chosen to undertake two out of three over the past couple of years (he published the kids' title I Already Know I Love You in 2004) tells you something about the comedian and eight-time Oscar MC's personality. For his Tony Award-winning, box office record-smashing, autobiographical solo show, 700 Sundays, is more nutritious than Grandma's chicken soup, more soothing than bedtime cocoa, and more embarrassingly sentimental than a grown man reminiscing about his bed-wetting days.

The thing about Crystal is that he's never really been the fast lane kind. He's been happily married to his first and only wife, Janice, for 35 years, and it's hard to imagine him so much as blowing smoke rings in a no-smoking bar. The edgiest thing the entertainer has ever done, I reckon, is put sunglasses on the giant Oscar statues that were being used as promotional props in the months leading up to the 1990 Academy Awards. Straddling two 8-foot Ray-Ban-bedecked statues, as the story (recounted in Arthur Grace's book Comedians) goes, Crystal posed for pictures until an official saw what was going on and had a fit about the defacement of Academy property.

Shtick in the Mud: Crystal's memorial is too 
sentimental to be dramatic.
Carol Rosegg
Shtick in the Mud: Crystal's memorial is too sentimental to be dramatic.

People adore Crystal precisely because he's such a gentle, fun-loving mensch. From his spirited Saturday Night Live-era impressions of Sammy Davis Jr. to roles in movies like When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers, Crystal has consistently projected an image of himself as the sort of comedian a girl would be proud to take home to her parents. You couldn't say the same of many others in his profession. The only problem with all this affability and good-natured amusement is that while it can make for a great stand-up comedy set, it's not so successful as a basis for autobiographical drama.

Performing in fittingly comfy black jeans and a blue wool sweater before a replica of the facade of his nondescript-looking childhood home on Long Island, Crystal distills the spirits of the people and places of his youth into wickedly funny archetypes. It's not for nothing that he states, "Let's face it: We all have the same five relatives. They just jump from album to album." There's Uncle Jack, whose squinting "Picasso face" Crystal lovingly re-creates by contorting his own physiognomy into an abstract painting; and Grandpa Julius, whose flatulence is daftly tempered by the fact that, being half deaf, he can't hear himself fart. Then there's Aunt Sheila. Batting invisible cigarette smoke with one hand and clutching an invisible phone to his ear with the other, Crystal swivels jauntily about the stage as if afflicted with Sheila's titanium hip, punctuating a yarn about her daughter's "lesbyterian" wedding in San Francisco with yells of "Leonard, get the car!" The whole routine feels like we've been invited into the comedian's house to flip through old family albums and watch home movies. In fact, bits of footage shot by Crystal's father with an 8mm camera and family photographs are projected onto the set throughout the performance, giving it a feel of cozy authenticity.

Balanced against Crystal's skills as a caricaturist are titillating anecdotes about growing up around some of the biggest names in American jazz. Crystal's Uncle Milt founded the great Commodore jazz label, and his father promoted concerts by the likes of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Crystal watched his very first movie -- Shane -- while sitting on Holiday's knee. A mood of "Jews and jazz, brisket and bourbon" pervades the production. It's a testament to Crystal's skill that his laid-back riffs, though fully scripted, sound every bit as improvised as one of Armstrong's trumpet solos.

Yet for all the rhythm in Crystal's life story (mood music extensively underscores his talk, as if to emphasize the point), the performance feels like a scratched record. The difficulty, I think, stems from the uneven relationship between Crystal's infectious borscht belt-style shtick and the confessional, more earnest material about the loss of his father and, eventually, his mother.

The piece gets its title from the sum total of time -- 700 Sundays -- that Crystal estimates he got to spend with his dad, who died prematurely of a heart attack when Billy was just 15. There are plenty of comedians who would take this kind of life-shattering event and turn it into humor of the most biting, satirical kind. But aside from Crystal's bittersweet impersonation of the funeral director who reads kaddish through mouthfuls of spit like Sylvester the Cat, this funny guy plays it straight. There's something admirable, brave even, about a comedian turning his back on laughter. I can't imagine Andy Kaufman or Sarah Silverman doing the same. But because it oozes with syrupy sentimentality and insufferable nostalgia, Crystal's well-intentioned, long-winded memorial neither satisfies as stand-up nor sparkles enough to feel like real theater.

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