Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
Deep into the three hilarious, touching hours that it takes him to get through ''700 Sundays," Billy Crystal describes the scene in his family home after his father's sudden, early death. Just 15, Billy had watched and listened as the famous jazz musicians who were like a second family to his father started ''a jam session in the shiva house." The Billy Crystal who's 58 and telling this story gently starts to shimmy, arms outstretched, in a move that's half hora, half blues. And that's ''700 Sundays" at its core: a celebration, a mourning, and a sweet little dance.
The 700 Sundays are what Crystal figures he had with his father, who worked two jobs to support his wife and three sons in their small but happy Long Island home. The standup comic turned actor tells plenty of jokes in this Tony-winning show, which opened Thursday night at the Opera House as part of its national tour. But he's after more than laughs; he wants us to see the people behind the one-liners, aunts, uncles, and parents -- especially parents -- who shaped his life.
And so he has crafted an actual play. It's a one-man play, sure, and one that could use a little tightening in spots, but it's a real play. It's got a nifty set (a replica of that childhood home, by David F. Weiner), delightful projections of home movies designed by Michael Clark, unobtrusive and effective sound, and lights by David Lee Cuthbert that reach their finest moment at the very end, in a shower of imaginary stars. And, most of all, it's got Crystal, whose warm presence makes it easy to settle in and listen.
Crystal's been accused of peddling schmaltz here, but he's serving something tastier: borscht, perhaps, with the balance of sour and salt and sweet staying mostly right. He can reduce a full house to helpless laughter with his imitation of ''Uncle Picasso," whose half-paralyzed face doesn't stop him from telling dirty jokes, or his rendering of raspy Aunt Sheila, whose recounting of her daughter's ''Lesbyterian" wedding is about as funny as theater gets. But that same story also provides one of the night's sweetest moments, as Sheila recalls her husband's change of heart from angry bigot to proud father of the bride.
Crystal works the changes expertly, neither milking the laughs nor wringing the handkerchiefs. But there are moments when the tone shifts feel less certain, the balance less true. A ruthless editor might help, one willing to say, when Crystal launches into a tangent on Mickey Mantle or Donald Trump, ''Great story, but save it for the next show." You can see why Crystal and his collaborators, writer Alan Zweibel and director Des McAnuff, had a hard time pruning, but they should.