Saturday, December 5, 2009

Theater review: Crystal's '700 Sundays' is a gem

Tickets are scarce for Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays.

By Hap Erstein

I never saw Billy Crystal’s one-man show 700 Sundays when it was on Broadway. Yes, I knew it had won a Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event of the 2004-05 season, but what could it be other than an extended stand-up comedy routine?

Plenty, as it turns out. The show, which clocks in at a running time of almost three hours (including intermission), is actually a quite touching series of recollections of growing up in Long Beach, Long Island. But particularly it includes Crystal’s memories of the night his father went out bowling and never came back, a victim of a sudden heart attack that led 15-year-old Billy into a fit of grief and anger, in which he confronted God, demanding to know why he took his father away.

And such is Crystal’s mastery of audiences -- the Kravis Center’s as well -- that he could have them reaching for their Kleenex one minute and convulsing with laughter the next.

It had been over 15 years since Crystal had done stand-up comedy by the time he began putting together what would become 700 Sundays, but he certainly showed himself to be a skilled monologuist at Thursday’s opening night of a brief, virtually sold out four-day run of his show. By now, at least five years into performing it, he appears to know every optimum audience response and elicits each one with casual precision.

The show’s title refers to his calculation of how many days of leisure he had with his father, the owner of a prestigious, if not overly profitable jazz record shop, before he passed away. That’s 700 days to go see their cherished New York Yankees or play catch in the backyard or sit and listen to albums of the legends of jazz.

I will concede that I am a sucker for plays and movies about the emotional tug between fathers and sons, so after being amused but not enthralled by the first act, Crystal won me over during the darker second half of his show. Still, judging from the murmurs of recognition, nostalgic sighs and hearty laughter from the rest of the audience, he had them from “Hello.”

Much of the first act consisted of standard -- albeit funny -- reminiscences of Crystal’s life: His family’s first car (a gray-on-gray 1956 Plymouth Belvedere), his first venture within the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium, his first girlfriend and their subsequent crushing breakup. Talking about these things, Crystal taps into the natural warmth, child-like wonder and devilish wit that has served him so well as a frequent emcee of the Academy Awards broadcast.

But go -- if you can find a ticket -- for the more dramatic second act, and gain even more admiration for Crystal, an Everyman performer who is easy to identify with and enjoy.

700 SUNDAYS, Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach.
Through Sunday. Tickets: $50-$750 (for Kravis Gala). Call: (561) 832-7469 or (800) 572-8471.

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