Over the course of two hours and 40 minutes, plus intermission, 700 Sundays answers any questions we may have had about Billy Crystal’s formative years as a middle-class kid growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and ’60s. I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t been aware there was a thirst for such knowledge, but there is. Enough for mega-director Des McAnuff to have spent several years working on this show with the comedian and actor, and for Crystal’s wife, Janice, to win a 2005 Tony for producing it. And enough to currently pack Beverly Hills’ cavernous Wilshire Theater night after night.
It starts where all things autobiographical in show business begin, with home movies. After a generous pastiche of Crystal family footage, the screen freezes on a charming little boy — Billy — who, Jolson-like, ends a tap dance on a bended knee, arms outstretched. Crystal then emerges from an exact replica of his Long Beach home, beautifully designed by David F. Weiner, and whose three windows serve as projection screens for the show’s still and moving images. The house represents nothing less than the suburban hearth, that happy future to which New York City’s ethnic families migrated in hopeful exodus after World War II. Today, though, these suburbs represent a nostalgic destination for memoirists hoping to return to the happier, simpler times we’re always told the past was. (This is Crystal’s life, but its script is given “additional material” from another Long Islander, Alan Zweibel.)
700 Sundays, whose title comes from the number of weekends Crystal calculates he spent with his father, who died of a heart attack when his son was 15, opens engagingly enough with a story about the family car. Crystal proves especially effective in brief summaries of people he knew as a child, whether jazz luminaries like Billie Holiday, or Long Island’s somber, old-country Jews with “smiles like fists.” The show’s problem is that it doesn’t rely upon such quick, hit-and-run moments, but borrows a family-album aesthetic — or rather, that of a party host who insists on dragging out his family album and explaining each and every photograph. Billy Crystal is born and we get a delivery-scene re-enactment. Little Billy sits at the breakfast table and watches in terror as his flatulent grandfather’s scrotum peeks in and out of his shorts. By the time Billy reaches his fifth birthday some may begin tapping their watches. Worse, Crystal takes long detours to portray other family members. While some are interesting (his uncle Milt Gabler, who founded the Commodore jazz record label), others (Aunt Sheila) simply seem downloaded from a club routine.
At times the show aims to be a bittersweet, raisins-and-almonds story of family and tragedy, but it usually comes off as cloying melodrama, thanks to bits of syrupy music that intrude to shore up Crystal’s more reflective moments. (You half expect “Greensleeves” to be piped in when Billy discovers masturbation.) By curtain we feel we’ve sat through all 700 Sundays in real time.
700 SUNDAYS | Written & performed by BILLY CRYSTAL, with additional material by ALAN ZWEIBEL | At Wilshire Theater, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills | Through February 18 | (213) 365-3500