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Theatre in Review: Mr. Saturday Night (Nederlander Theatre)

Billy Crystal, David Paymer. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Unsure about seeing Mr. Saturday Night? Take this simple quiz. Do you enjoy watching Billy Crystal do what he does better than anybody, weaponizing punchlines and detonating them for explosive laughs? Head to the Nederlander now. Are you looking for a breezy, entertaining contemporary musical packed with interesting characters and an engaging plot? Let me direct your attention to several other new attractions.

Make no mistake: As Buddy Young, Jr., an aging comic who sabotaged his Milton Berle moment and now trolls show business' lower depths, Crystal is peerless, kvetching like one of the old masters (Youngman, Alan King, et al). The quality of the jokes doesn't matter when they're being lobbed across the footlights with the agility of Roger Federer in his prime. At their best, they transmute ire into unbridled hilarity: Surveying the superannuated audience at a retirement center, Buddy cracks, "Folks, if you're having a good time, tell your face." He adds, "I know some of you are sad. You're still sitting shiva for Lincoln." At home, stewing about his dying career, responding to news of a visitor, he snaps, "Is it the Angel of Death? 'Cause I'm packed." He deftly defibrillates the most elderly gags -- did you hear the one about the blind man at the Seder? -- shocking them back into life. And you'll want to hang around for his demonstration of "Yiddish scat singing," a vocal exercise packed with more consonants than you ever thought possible.

True, if you're going to enjoy Mr. Saturday Night, it helps to have a fondness for a certain kind of vintage shtick as perfected by the Friars Club set. (Fans of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, take note.) And a show that spoofs Gene Shalit and the On-the-Waterfront Marlon Brando is clearly not angling for the Wicked and Six audience. But Crystal's mastery has its own fascinations, and his timing is marvelous to behold. Even if this isn't you're humor, you'll have to fight to keep a straight face.

At the same time, nobody involved with Mr. Saturday Night has made a case for it as a musical. The book, by Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel, from their rather harder-edged 1992 film, is perfunctory at best, muting Buddy's all-devouring egotism and soft-peddling his cruelty toward his loved ones. Shifting back and forth between the 1950s and mid-1990s, the narrative never gives the supporting characters anything interesting to do; even more mysteriously, it skips over the defining moment of Buddy's career, the on-air meltdown that got his network variety show canceled, consigning him to also-ran status. Awkwardly, the creators -- including composer Jason Robert Brown and lyricist Amanda Green -- struggle to find places for musical numbers. Aside from "Tahiti," a fun little fantasia for Randy Graff as Buddy's long-suffering wife, and "Maybe It Starts with Me," a kicky, upbeat tune for the gifted belter Shoshana Bean as his underloved, underachieving daughter, the score never really justifies its existence.

The book adheres to a familiar a-star-is-reborn formula, as Buddy is taken up by Annie, a perky, ambitious junior agent who, trying to make him relevant again, books him for disastrous gigs as the audience warmup act at a sitcom shoot and as a celebrity guest on The $25,000 Pyramid. (In the latter case, his clues are so bafflingly personal that he reduces his fellow player to tears of frustration.) Meanwhile, he must come to terms with the selfishness that alienates everyone who cares about him. In following this well-worn path to redemption, shamelessness is regularly indulged: Of course, the hot director of the film for which Buddy auditions has a family connection to the Catskills resort where Buddy got his start. Of course, there will be teary make-up scenes with each of Buddy's loved ones. But nobody involved has laid the groundwork that would make Buddy's self-reckoning mean something. It's the Billy/Buddy show, a firestorm of wisecracks, and everything around it is so much filler.

Still, the management has hired some highly welcome pros to fill out the show's gallery of thankless supporting roles, starting with David Paymer as Buddy's long-suffering brother and former manager, now living in sunshiny Floridian exile. (In one of the odder casting coups of recent years, both Crystal and Paymer are reprising their same characters from the film, thirty years after the fact.) Graff bubbles over with warmth and wit, Bean is touching in a role that could come across as one long whine, and Chasten Harmon adds a large dollop of charm as the agent whose can-do attitude provides a fine foil for Buddy's seen-it-all cynicism. Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Mylinda Hull are aces as Buddy's Greek chorus of cronies.

John Rando's direction is at its best when making room for Crystal; he also keeps the proceedings moving at a brisk pace. It's a no-frills production with a cast of seven and a band of six musicians, with a production design to match. Scott Pask has provided am efficient collection of apartments, TV studios, restaurants, and rehearsal rooms, all of them lit by Kenneth Posner with his usual skill. The costumes by Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser effortlessly evoke both the Eisenhower and Clinton eras, although the designers (and the hair and wig specialist Charles G. LaPointe) are hard-pressed to make Crystal, Graff, and Paymer look like young adults in the Catskills scenes. Kai Harada's sound design is top-drawer, catching every nuance of the lyrics and Brown's jazzy arrangements and orchestrations.

The standout contribution is by video and projection designer Jeff Sugg, who calls up a lost era of entertainment with imagery that includes an animated map of the Borscht Belt, a collage of artery-clogging dishes from a Catskills buffet, and a portrait gallery of comedy greats (including Jack Benny, Phil Silvers, Totie Fields, Moms Mabley, Jerry Lewis, and Myron Cohen). (In one of the funniest video bits, Buddy is mistakenly added to the necrology at an Emmy Awards broadcast, a triggering event to say the least.)

Mr. Saturday Night is a good illustration of William Goldman's assertion that one can laugh all night long at a comedy and still leave dissatisfied if the other elements are lacking. That's the case here, although it's a comment that comes with an asterisk: If you're a confirmed Crystal fan, you shouldn't even be reading this. Everyone else, be aware: This is an unapologetic star vehicle, and it could frankly use a little more gas in the tank. --David Barbour

(10 May 2022)

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