Crystal photos by Matthew Murphy
Mr. Saturday Night
By Marc Miller
Billy Crystal as a comic who lives for his audience. This is not a stretch for
him. The joy that emanates from the Nederlander stage in Mr. Saturday Night, and
make no mistake, it does emanate, has as much to do with familiarity and
nostalgic goodwill as the material itself, which has its frowzy aspects. The
theatergoers, judging from their looks, are largely familiar with the source
material and don’t want it muddled with much, just add a few songs and stir.
They’ve come to relive who they were 30 years ago and see Billy Crystal go
through well-worn paces, ad lib a little, display spot-on timing, and offer a
lesson in being a top banana an old term, and one afforded a rapidly diminishing
number of comedians. These objectives he accomplishes handily.
Calling the evening old-fashioned is putting it mildly. Mr. Saturday Night was
a popular but hardly epochal 1992 comedy-drama, a vehicle for Crystal to strut
his comic stuff as Buddy Young Jr., and maybe wring a tear or two. (Even today,
it’s only a 5.9 on the IMDB.) The screenwriters, Crystal and Lowell Ganz and
Babaloo Mandel, have returned for the stage outing, as has Oscar-nominated
David Paymer, as Buddy’s hapless older brother and manager. They haven’t so
much adapted the original as folded song cues into it, for which Jason Robert
Brown (music) and Amanda Green (lyrics) provide a capable, unspectacular retro
score. A more than competent cast takes up roles previously assumed by Helen
Hunt, Jerry Orbach, and others, and unchallenging sentiment and hilarity are
the order of the day. Before Mr. Saturday Night, Ganz and Mandel were known
mainly as sitcom writers, for the likes of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley,
and Mr. Saturday Night plays like a very well-wrought sitcom, with songs.
again, we’re in the early ‘90s, and Buddy, having witnessed his own false
demise in an obituary tribute on the Emmys, is eager to see if he can parlay
that misinformation into a revival of his faltering standup career (he’s been
reduced to Saturday morning routines in retirement home rec rooms, prompting a
surfeit of geezer jokes). Back in the day he headlined a CBS Saturday night
variety hit, till an on-air breakdown led to cancellation and a downward career
spiral. Now, aided by his unbelievably patient and tolerant wife Elaine (Randy
Graff), brother Stan, and enthusiastic young talent rep Annie (Chasten Harmon),
he gets a shot at bigger things, notably a juicy role in a movie by a popular
director (Brian Gonzales) who’d seen Buddy in his Catskills debut some 50 years
ago. Will Buddy triumph, and will he perhaps veer away from the relentless
self-centeredness that has poisoned his relationships with wife, brother, and
underachieving daughter Susan (Shoshana Bean)? What do you think?
Very little in the way of surprises, then, but that’s not what we’re here for.
One happy surprise: The 74-year-old Crystal and 67-year-old Paymer, in
flashbacks as Catskills resort workers, play their twentysomething selves, and
do so charmingly. An unhappy one: Buddy’s on-air breakdown, a prime opportunity
for expanding the screenplay and providing some actual onstage drama, is
described but not dramatized. Mostly, the writers serve up sketches and set
pieces (one very funny one: Buddy on The $25,000 Pyramid, spewing out
inside-showbiz clues his partner couldn’t possibly understand). Then, in the
second act, they concentrate on Make Us Care moments, about Buddy’s halting
efforts to humanize himself, Elaine’s struggle to emotionally support him while
facing up to his numerous failings, and Susan’s dealings with her vastly
imperfect parents. It’s efficient storytelling, we do ultimately care a little,
and it all feels somewhat rote.
The engine, of course, is Crystal, and he’s wonderfully up to the job. How many
other living comic actors have the DNA of their estimable predecessors, the
Bert Lahrs and Phil Silverses and Bobby Clarks? Nathan Lane, Michael McGrath,
you could make a case for Lewis J. Stadlen, and that’s about it. Crystal loves
raunch, and he makes the most of a good recurring gag, subverting audience
expectations and gloating, “Did you see what I did there?” He’s ably assisted
by, especially, Graff, who captures the conflicting motivations complicating
Elaine’s soon-to-be-golden years, and Bean, making a rounded character out of a
set of neglected-offspring cliches. Gonzales, Jordan Gelber, and Mylinda Hull
furiously change costumes as Buddy’s writers and a whole smorgasbord of other
characters, and probably end up working harder than anybody else.
It's not a cast album you’ll want to run out and buy, but Amanda Green rhymes
accurately (and sometimes predictably: In this context, when you hear “Eddie
Fisher,” you know “pisher” can’t be far behind), gets an A for neatness, and
knows how to set up and execute a punchline. Good work, reflecting the
influence of her dad, Adolph, and he’d be proud of her. Brown delivers the
pastiche sounds of the ‘40s to the ‘90s, and also gets an A for neatness; he
just doesn’t seem, compared with the likes of Parade and The Bridges of Madison
County and The Last Five Years, terribly emotionally invested in what’s going
It’s as cheap-looking a big Broadway musical as you’re likely to find, with a
cast of eight, an orchestra of six, and a set, by Scott Pask, that would seem
skimpy in a high school auditorium. Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser’s costumes
compensate somewhat, and Jeff Sugg, as is becoming a trend, provides
projections that partly make up for the visual paucity in front of them. John
Rando directs for, as one song title goes, “Timing,” though that particular
number shows a distinct lack thereof.
Crystal got an enormous hand on his intro, kept eliciting disproportionate
audience adulation, and followed the inevitable standing ovation with 15
minutes of standup and Q&A, extending a slender story’s running time to
almost three hours. He’s a pro, and if Mr. Saturday Night feels predictable and
retro in every respect, those are qualities we associate with comfort food. In
these troubled times, comfort food seems a necessity for many. As such, Mr.
Saturday Night serves it up with panache.
Mr. Saturday Night
Playing at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.