Scott Brown
December 20, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

EW reviews two comedic one-man shows

Man and shtick merge in 700 Sundays, Billy Crystal’s new solo show. For Crystal, whose veins surge with hot borscht, schmaltz is not insincerity — it’s a refined language of nicely generalized sentimentality and nostalgia, a very pleasant if somewhat indistinct ache in the heart. But if you’re here to see a funnyman bare his soul (and who wants to see that, really?), keep moving.

Triangulating somewhere between Malamud and Gump, Sundays is a national coming-of-age tale disguised as a Crystal autobiography. It’s a deeply personal show: There’s the Nedick’s hot dog he ate at Yankee Stadium as Mantle rounded third, or the time he saw Shane while sitting on Billie Holiday’s lap. But these are collective American memories he’s inviting us to share…at a safe distance. Even the show’s raison d’ être — the death of Crystal’s dad when the comic was 15 — echoes mythically in the deaths of jazz (his family were music-biz pioneers, thus the Holiday anecdote) and JFK. Crystal isn’t telling a life story; he’s doing his life-story material. Maybe it’s the same thing. Either way, he makes it look easy.

Then there’s Mario Cantone, who, going it alone in Laugh Whore, kills by making it look really, really hard. Every syllable uttered by the stubby, pop-eyed Broadway regular (terrific in the recent Assassins revival, but better known as Sex and the City‘s bitchy wedding planner Anthony) sounds as if it’s been ripped from his throat by force. ”You guys, Cher has an Oscar,” he squawks. ”Cher has an Oscar and that’s the punchline.” He makes all local stops on the Gay New York Comedy Line — Judy, Liza — and everything, including the ill-fitting original songs, goes on a bit too long. But Cantone wills it all over the top and finds the heart of his show in — you guessed it — the poignant family bits. When a personal story elicits ”awww”s, he screams, ”This is not a comedy club, this is the thea-tah!” Lately, that seems a fine distinction.

Sundays: B+ Whore: B-

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