8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. 5 p.m. Sunday. Through Dec. 20. $30-$150. Presented by Atlanta Broadway Series, Cobb Energy Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 1-800-982-2787, ticketmaster.com.
By Wendell Brock
Billy Crystal may not be the greatest comedian of our time, but with “700 Sundays,” he comes pretty close. A long, loving and impeccably crafted solo piece about his large, loving and indelibly funny Jewish family, “700 Sundays” straddles the thin line between hysteria and heartbreak to close the year on an exceptionally fine note.
The journey of a sweet, hapless, tap-dancing kid who caught the comedy bug at a Catskills nightclub and went on to conquer Hollywood, become a preferred Academy Awards host and tell about it all in this Tony Award-winning show, “700 Sundays” centers on Crystal’s worshipful relationship with his father, a jazz impresario who died when the performer was only 15. Six days a week, Jack Crystal commuted from his family’s Long Island home to his Manhattan record store in his 1957 Plymouth Belvedere, reserving Sunday for his wife and three boys. These were the happiest days, Crystal remarks wistfully. Too bad there were only about 700 of them.
But comedy redeemed the grief-stricken kid, whose spunk and energy are captured in a series of old home movies projected onto a facsimile of his boyhood home. A superb mimic, the star of “When Harry Met Sally” regales us with tales of his gaseous grandpa, his cigarette-wielding Aunt Sheila and his mother, who put herself through secretarial school to support her family after her husband’s death. (She had three words for him when he took off on a plane for college: “Don’t wash wool.”) The “home movie” of an uncle’s backyard barbecue is a classic: flickering like an old black-and-white Charlie Chaplin reel, but with a surprising up-yours twist.
When Crystal is not engaged in potty humor or heart-wrenching material about his mother’s stroke, he shares anecdotes about his brisket-and-bourbon-loving family’s influence on Dixieland Jazz. He once went to the movies with Billie Holiday (the film was “Shane”). After years of rejection by the recording industry, the Lady Day finally persuaded his uncle Milt Gabler to make “Strange Fruit,” a harrowing account of lynching and one of the most important songs of the 20th century. When Jack Crystal died, Count Basie and Duke Ellington came to the viewing.
It has been said that Crystal’s theatrical memoir, which clocks in at about 3 hours (including intermission), is as long as “Hamlet,” and yet there is rarely a wasted moment. Written by Crystal (with additional material by Alan Zweibel) and directed by DesMcAnuff (“Jersey Boys”), “700 Sundays” is more an act of generosity than overindulgence. “This house has so many stories,” Crystal says toward the end. You will forgive him if he over shares a little.
Standing 5-foot-7, the 61-year-old Crystal remains boyishly old-school, building his shtick on flatulence jokes and phlegm. He is nothing if not a Hollywood anathema: true to self and soul, a virtuosic entertainer and all-around mensch who cries real tears. Both outrageously funny and deeply affecting, “700 Sundays” is one of the year’s most memorable shows.