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Act One could be called "Happy Days, With Melancholy Clouds Forming." Act Two lowers the boom, with the death eventually of both parents, and Crystal is unstinting in conveying a teenager's overwhelming loss and "other-ness," pushing mountainous boulders to get from day to day. You might not have noticed what a terrific actor he is.
It's a sentimental journey, to be sure, dark at times, but always open to the flick of a wit that can shed some unexpected lightness on the proceedings. "We knew we had a story to tell," said Alan Zweibel, who shares writing credit with Crystal. "When we were putting it together, we did what we had to. We weren't afraid to go long stretches without jokes. When you go with the funeral, you need something to break the tension a bit so you throw in a narcolepsy joke. It was all about the storytelling. We knew we could make it funny. We wanted it to be funny the right way."
The new edition of 700 Sundays, nicely and tightly paced by director Des McAnuff, comes in a good 20 minutes earlier than it did nine years ago. The senior citizen in the center ring finished it up without undue huff 'n' puff, threw in a cartwheel and still found time to deliver a touching, from-the-heart curtain speech to the crowd.
"On behalf of the entire cast..." he led off with grand largesse, quickly letting that be drowned out by hysterical laughter. He said he considered it a particularly special evening "because, oddly enough, this is the anniversary of my mom's passing. It just happened to be. And you know what? Somewhere, she's smiling and saying, 'Why didn't you talk about my work with charities?' This show is for her — for all of your parents out there. You know, this has been a dream come true, doing this show.
"I'm 65 years old now," he continued. "I think I'm the only 65-year-old doing cartwheels on Broadway. I so love performing the show. There are so many people out there that I love. When I say the cast is here, the cast IS here. My brothers are here. Beautiful Janice [his wife] is here. All my friends and people I really respect are here. That means so much to me. All these strangers who get to know the Crystal family and the Gabler family because of my stories — it really means a lot to me."
He wrapped it up with a story about his father's brother, Burns, who ran an art gallery and peddled the paintings of Zero Mostel. "Burns arranged for my mom and I to see Fiddler on the Roof in this very theatre. We sat in Row R over there, and Burns arranged for us to go backstage to meet the great Zero Mostel, whose Tevye is pretty much the greatest performance of any musical comedy in the history of Broadway on this stage. I was introduced to him. I was 16 years old. Burns had told him I wanted to perform, and he was very encouraging to me. 'If you're going to be funny, you got to work hard, and then you'll be even funnier. So try that. Just keep working hard.' He was so encouraging. And you know what? I'm in his dressing room."
There was a lot of eye dabbing on the way to the exit and the party at John's Pizzeria. Jimmy Fallon was especially verklempt. "There were so many parallels between his life and my life," he said. "It may not be the exact same experience, but it's familiar enough. I thought it very, very funny and tremendously moving. Billy's the best!"
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