“They talked Yiddish, which is the language of coughing and spitting,” says Buddy Young, Jr. of his relatives in Mr. Saturday Night, Billy Crystal’s 1992 misguided attempt at poignancy in the story of a Borscht Belt never-was. He modifies the line in 700 Sundays, telling of grandparents who spoke “a combination of German and phlegm,” and waits for the yuks that he knows will follow.
Now on Broadway, Crystal drops the bitterness and returns to what he does besttotal inoffensiveness. At intermission, I asked the heavy-set blond man next to me, who’d laughed his way through Act One, how he was liking it. “Billy Crystal and I don’t have the same cultural background,” he said, looking intently to make sure I got the euphemism, “but we sort of have the same family”a sentiment which, judging by the ersatz chorus of amens after every mawkish thought, indicated they’re members of a very large brood.
Crystal’s appeal has eluded me ever since he stopped playing Jody, in the closet and spry, on Soap. Though the part itself was pioneering, Crystal played it for laughscongenially, unthreateninglyas he has nearly every role he has ever taken. Appearing on Saturday Night Live lent him hip by association, as have repeated reminders of his link to the Commodore Music Shop and various jazz greats. But the characters he developedFernando, Lou Goldman the “Weatherman,” the masochist who nasally intoned “I hate when I do that”lacked bite from the get-go, and subsequent film roles affirmed he was choosing an untroubling path, coming to embody a new kind of everyman, as seen by the all-too decentultimately vanillaNew Yorker he plays in When Harry Met Sally.
But blandness sells. It’s the key to hosting the Oscars, and to selling out on Broadway. Crystal recycles himselfand the predictable bits offer comfort, never confrontation, with a gee-whiz air. His put-on of modesty in 700 Sundays is surprising given that, as he concedes in his program notes, he has spent his life chasing and winning applause. Crystal’s still a tap-dancing child, after all these years. But he’s a grandfather now too, and the boychik routine has worn impossibly thin.