Billy Crystal in 700 Sundays(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Billy Crystal in 700 Sundays
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
We feel confident writing that Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays is the funniest Broadway show about death and grieving that you will ever see. In this tribute to his parents in the form of a comic memoir, Crystal details growing up in a Long Beach, Long Island house filled with "the smell of bourbon and the sound of jazz." Here is a middle-class Jewish kid who saw his first movie while sitting on the lap of Billie Holiday. Blessed with a unique, fascinating childhood, Crystal manages the artful trick of telling a one-of-a-kind story that is nevertheless poignantly universal in its appeal.

The nostalgic set by David F. Weiner represents the exterior of Crystal's boyhood home. The windows of the house periodically become a trio of screens on which home movies are projected. As the show starts, we see the unmistakable images of Crystal as a little kid. This is cute stuff because you can see everything you need to know about this fireball of a kid who demands attention with his histrionics, mugging, and one-legged tap-dancing. But more important than capturing the grown-up star in the child, these beautifully blown up 8mm movies show us the world of his family. It's a world with which the vast majority of a Broadway audience can immediately connect: a suburban house in the 1950s, filled with people who look like they could be our own relatives.

If you add up all of the Sundays in 15 years, they come to about 700; that's how many Sundays Crystal had with his beloved father, who suddenly died of a heart attack when Billy was 15 years old. Looking back, Crystal notes that most of the significant events in his early life happened on Sundays because those were the days spent with his dad. He was with his father when he made his first trip to New York City (Billy thought it looked like Oz). It was at the Sunday night jazz jams hosted by his father, who ran the famous Commodore jazz record store, where Billy performed for the first time in front of an audience (he was five). And the young Yankee fan made his first trip to The House that Ruth Built with his father on a Sunday, as well (it was 1956 and Mickey Mantle hit a towering home run that day). Well, Crystal hits a home run in this show. Yes, its unabashedly sentimental from start to finish, carefully designed to make you cry, and it obviously offers a glorified vision of nearly perfect parents. But the sentiment is earned, the tears are constantly undercut by hilariously sardonic comments, and one easily forgives the rose-colored memories of his mother and father because Billy is living proof that they did a great job in raising a mensch.

While this is a one-man show by a comedian, 700 Sundays bears no relationship to other one-person Broadway shows by comedians. It isn't a standup act like Jackie Mason's, nor is it a series of characters without a plot like Whoopi Goldberg's. Rather, it's a genuine story that is more or less linear, taking us through Crystal's relationships with his father and mother. In this well-crafted work, Crystal plants phrases, moments, and actions in early scenes that he returns to later, and they gain a rich resonance in the repetition. For instance, in one scene, a defiant Billy goes to heaven to have it out with God about the death of his father. God tells young Billy that you've got to deal with the cards that your dealt. Later, after the death of his mother, he returns to face God again, looks at his cards -- and then, in a bold stroke, he bets everything he has, telling God to put up or shut up. God's bluffing. He has nothing.

700 Sundays is, at once, an inspirational story about achieving success in the face of adversity and a riotously funny series of episodes in Crystal's life, most of which connect in one way or another with his parents. One of the most moving is also one of the funniest: Soon after the death of his father, the confused young Billy tries out for the high school basketball team. Unable to concentrate, he does badly. The coach calls him into his office and unexpectedly asks him how he's managing at home; the kid opens up like a geyser, spewing his insecurity and misery. Rather than cutting him, the coach puts him on the team. (Crystal says that this was the single nicest thing anybody had ever done for him.) He follows up this story with a description of a high school basketball game in which the largely Jewish Long Beach team takes on the second-ranked team in the state, from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall. With the Long Beach boys down 56 points at the end of the first quarter, their coach -- at the insistence of Billy's mother, yelling in the stands -- finally lets the kid into a game. What follows will have you roaring with laughter. It's that kind of show: You're crying one second, laughing the next. Crystal keeps every emotion in play, spinning his tale with a script (his own, with additional material by Alan Zweibel) that is deftly conversational and delivered with an affable, eager-to-please charm. Des McAnuff's direction is seamless as each episode flows naturally into the next.

There's one scene in the show that metaphorically encapsulates Crystal's entire approach to his material. He tells us about a time when his mother had pneumonia and was taken to the hospital. Young Billy was terrified. That night, he raced in the rain to the hospital seven blocks away. His mother saw him out her window. Standing in the rain and the mud, he knocked himself out in the hospital courtyard to get her to laugh. "I wouldn't leave until I got my laugh," he tells us. And that's 700 Sundays in a nutshell: He shares his pain and suffering with us but he won't leave any scene without getting his laughs. In fact, he gets them by the truckload.

Now in his late 50s but still looking boyish, Crystal is a comedy icon, a movie star, a film director and producer, and arguably the best host that the Oscar telecasts have ever had. (He's done it eight times.) 700 Sundays marks his Broadway debut. The show is being billed as a limited engagement, but given its polish and craft, its emotional and comedic impact, and the commercial appeal of its star, it could easily run, if not 700 Sundays, at least a month of Sundays.