Aisle View: Crystal Clear Comedy

I propose that we establish a new classification of theatrical entertainment, called the sit back in your seat and relax -- except when you are bouncing out of said seat in glee -- because you know you're in the presence of a master genre. This notion came to me when Billy Crystal entered and started to talk about his family's 1957 gray-on-gray Plymouth Belvedere in his autobiographical, two-act stand-up play 700 Sundays (at the Imperial). The moment of truth came even before Billy entered, when a suspiciously crotchety-voiced announcer announced that "at this performance, the role of Billy Crystal will be played by Denzel Washington."

(When 700 Sundays first opened on Broadway, in December 2004, I seem to recall that it was Bernadette Peters. So while this version appears to be more or less identical, there are small changes -- including jokes about Osama bin Laden and Rand Paul. Who make a mighty interesting couple, now that we think of it.)

Yes, this is the same show as before, Crystal's first and only theater venture. You might have seen it -- if you were lucky -- at the Broadhurst, where it was the biggest-grossing non-musical Broadway had ever seen. 700 Sundays took in more than $21 million during its 29-week run, back in the days when relatively few people were accustomed to paying the then-new premium prices (which in Crystal's case was $250).

These grosses were accumulated with only six to seven performances a week; on his only full eight-performance week, Crystal set a then-new record weekly gross for plays of $1,061,089. But that was then. During his first week at the Imperial, with six previews, he hit $1,147,436. With premium tickets presently at $335.50 and not unlikely to quickly balloon, look for Crystal to fast approach the ultra-luxe $1,500,000 club. And look for this "54 performance only" engagement to extend following its January 5 closing date, provided the star is willing.

This is all very well if it's a theatrical goldmine you're looking for. And 700 Sundays was and -- unless Crystal gets run over crossing 45th Street by a 1957 gray-on-gray Plymouth Belvedere -- will again be a theatrical goldmine for the star/author and his lead producer, Mrs. Crystal. (This is one of the few shows we can recall in which the producer is lavishly and lovingly praised in the script.) The original 700 Sundays had the very same impact as Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway, which in 2011 shattered Crystal's box office record at the Broadhurst. But Jackman played only 10 weeks, shelled out gobs of cash to a bevy of songwriters, and carried six dancers, eighteen musicians and a full complement of stagehands and dressers. 700 Sundays is just one skinny guy in scruffy clothes on a simple set.

All this commercial talk is only incidental. 700 Sundays is emotionally riveting, uproariously funny, and altogether lovely. I found it smashingly good in 2004 and somehow more gripping last night, perhaps because Mr. Crystal is nine years older (as are those of us who saw it nine years ago). Crystal is something of a combination of Jackie Mason with heart and Woody Allen with warmth, mixed with the physical expressiveness of Sid Caesar; picture a Jewish Steve Martin. (Am I the only one, I wonder, who found Crystal's sidelong glances at the audience -- as they made downright fools of themselves by laughing too long and too hard -- reminiscent of Jack Benny?)

We've got some enthralling theater on the boards just now: Mormons, Menageries, Rylances, and ground-breaking musicals like Once, The Great Comet and Fun Home. Billy Crystal joins them, making it look simple as Jello to make you sit back in your seat and relax because you know you're in the presence of a master.