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Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays: Yes, But Is It Performance Art?

Performance Art: a live theatre piece, written and performed by the same person, where, similarly to stand-up comedy, the author/performer is intended to be an intrinsic and indispensable feature of the work.

No, the above definition doesn't come from any textbook of underground theatre, nor was it scribbled on the restroom wall at La Mama. It's my own personal definition. And when you're talking about an art form where most of its participants will tell you "Oh, it defies definition" I think it's about time somebody should attempt one. Back in the late 80's/early 90's, the "Golden Age of Performance Art" if you will, I spent enough evenings sitting on hard chairs at Dixon Place (the old one) and freezing my butt off at P.S. 122 to take a crack at publicly defining it. And it's a good thing because, hold your breath people, with the critical and popular raves over Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, one of the biggest hits of the new Broadway season is a performance art piece.

Now those of you who have only heard of performance art probably equate it with visions of some naked lady rubbing chocolate sauce all over herself (The artist's name was Karen Finley and that piece, We Keep Our Victims Ready was a rather involved presentation about the objectification of women.) but if you went often enough you'd realize that the main thrust of the movement involved a lot of talking. People, usually alone on stage, talking about themselves, their families, their friends, politics, sex, religion... Sure, sometimes someone would take off their clothes (actually, they did that a lot) or perform an act you wouldn't exactly see featured at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but the best practitioners of performance art make sure these "shocking" actions are a part of fully developed theatre pieces.

What makes such works different from plays is that each artist makes his or herself the canvas on which the piece is created. The work does not exist without a particular person performing it. If Annie Sprinkle can't make it to the theatre she doesn't have a standby letting you look at her cervix. If Penny Arcade is sick, she doesn't have an understudy go on stage an vomit in her place. And after this engagement closes I seriously doubt we'll be seeing acting editions of 700 Sundays published for regional and community theatre productions.

Actually, you could if Crystal chose to make it simply a spoken word piece. I'd even call it a play in that case, like Tru or The Belle of Amherst. (or Elaine Stritch at Liberty, which I'm positive can be performed by another actress playing Elaine Stritch) But what gives Cyrstal's Thurber-like remembrances of his Long Island childhood such emotional zing are the home movies that accompany his monologue. Watching a world-wide celebrity standing outside a replica of his childhood home (one of those suburban "little boxes" nicely recreated by David F. Weiner) watching black and white film of himself as some goofy little kid is just too real to be called a play. With 700 Sundays Billy Crystal has taken a theatrical form born of revolution and experimentation and has tempered it into heartwarming Broadway family-friendly fun.

The same way Thornton Wilder documented typical American life in Our Town as a way of saying "This is who we are", millions of post-war parents started documenting the everyday lives of their baby-boom families through home movies. There are kids today who can watch film of their great-grandparents as toddlers bouncing on toy horses while they do the same. 700 Sundays is not a remarkable story, although there are some extraordinarily unique moments, but it's more of a suburban homespun reminder of the pleasures of day to day living. I defy anyone to see this piece and not be reminded of some long-forgotten family member or personal tragic event.

With a father spending 6 days a week at work and passing away when the author was only 15, Crystal was limited to 700 Sundays of real bonding time with his dad. From Monday through Saturday he lived a secret life in this magical place called Manhattan, where he ran the family business, the Commodore Record Store. Yup, that's what led to the extraordinarily unique moments In the 1950's Commodore was the only record company that would record jazz without restricting the musicians' artistic freedom. Billie Holiday not only recorded "Strange Fruit" at Commodore, but she took little Billy to his first movie. And it was at Sunday night jam sessions hosted by his father where Billy Crystal cut his performing teeth, specializing in one-legged tap dancing. After his father's death, the text focuses on Crystal's mutually protective relationship with his mother and her determination to provide the family with a normal family life.

But wait -- this is Billy Crystal, so there's a lot of just plain funny stuff too. Like a drama that demands comic relief, 700 Sundays strikes a healthy balance between wholesome sentiment and show-biz shtick. His impersonations of himself as a child performing for his family (complete with their reactions) are riotous, as is his recollection of being pitifully over-matched in a high school basketball game. But the comedic highlight of 700 Sundays, a masterful display of clowning, is a mime piece of a gruff relative cooking up a barbecue. I doubt if we'll see anything funnier this season.

Additional material is supplied by Alan Zweibel and Des McAnuff's direction keeps the episodic evening moving at a swift and seamless pace, but with all due respect to their contributions you're not likely to leave the theatre thinking of anyone else but Billy Crystal. As a stand-up comic he's had years of experience being himself in front of an audience and he does so with a natural, one-of-the-guys ease that would make him a welcome house guest in anyone's living room. Especially when he breaks out the home movies.

Photos by Carol Rosegg

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From This Author Michael Dale