Where would Billy Crystal be without a camera? Sure, he wouldn’t be the famous actor-comedian, from television’s “Soap” and “Saturday Night Live” to the big screen’s “When Harry Met Sally ...” and “City Slickers.”
But rewind a few more decades. Back to the home movies Crystal’s father took with the family’s 8-millimeter camera throughout the 1950s and ’60s — an endless reel, it seems, of little Billy, the “youngest and shortest” of his siblings, he says, hamming it up for the camera in and outside the family’s modest house in suburban Long Island.
Those silent movies are the bedrock of Crystal’s one-man bioplay “700 Sundays,” a loving ode to growing up Jewish, jazzy and surrounded by loving — if endlessly quirky — family. The charming show has a two-week sit-down at Tempe’s Gammage Auditorium before an Australian tour.
Projected against the windows of a stage set resembling Crystal’s childhood home, celluloid time capsules burst to life in the background as the actor weaves a near-three-hour monologue about his wacky, flatulent, chain-smoking kin, and the parents whose deaths triggered this midlife-reflection-turned-Tony-Award-winning Broadway smash.
It’s one of the rare instances wherein someone’s home movies are a welcome sight. Crystal pauses halfway into the show to pay tribute to his dad’s penchant for capturing Kodak moments.
“If I didn’t have him,” he says, “I’d have half a show.”
Jack Crystal was more than the man behind the camera, though: Though he died of a heart attack when Billy was just 15 — thus the show’s title, the amount of quality time he figures he spent with his father — Crystal’s dad packed enough nurturing heart to fuel a lifetime of ambition in his child.
A hardworking record shop manager and concert promoter, he often had jazz greats hanging out at home (“The house,” Crystal says early in the show, “always smelled like brisket and bourbon”), and those moments — watching “Shane” on the lap of Billie Holiday, sitting in Louis Armstrong’s seats at a Yankees game — punctuate a first act in which Crystal otherwise attempts to prove that an odd clan is universal. (“We all have the same five relatives,” Crystal says. “They just jump from album to album.”)
It was Jack Crystal who encouraged 9-year-old Billy, enthralled by a hack Catskills comic, to try his own hand at stand-up. The rest, of course, is history.
Still, dad is only half the show.
Crystal’s mother, and her death in 2001 following a series of strokes, rounds out the second act. And it’s then that a show that opens with so much nostalgic whimsy, as Crystal taps into his childhood hamminess (the actor’s high-speed pantomime of a particularly testy home movie clip is the funniest thing the Gammage stage has offered in several seasons), takes a dip into territory that will have a mistyeyed majority in the audience reaching for Kleenex.
“700 Sundays” doesn’t dabble much in Crystal’s Hollywood career, a refreshingly selfless gesture against the ego-fests of most celebrity bioplays. (Hollywood still crept in, though, opening night at Gammage: sitting down front in the audience, Robin Williams.) Yet, all said and done, Crystal’s live show plumbs very similar emotion to that of the underrated 1995 movie he co-wrote and directed, “Forget Paris,” in which a charming, witty guy deals with the death of his father and learns what it means to love.
It’s a balance between humor and pathos, and Crystal walks the line beautifully. “700 Sundays” is a theatrical treasure.
Is there any wonder that Crystal would want to record the Broadway show for DVD release?
Somebody, get the camera.
>> '700 Sundays’ opened 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 16, and runs 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through Jan. 27at Gammage Auditorium, 1200 S. Forest Ave., Tempe. $25-$150. (480) 965-3434 or asugammage.com.