Based on a 1992 big-screen box-office dud that Crystal co-wrote, directed, and starred in, the fitfully amusing story spins around Buddy Young Jr., a has-been comic who lost his lucrative network gig but has never shed his self-sabotaging ways. Then, by fluke, he gets a second chance for professional and personal growth.
It’s the 1990s when we meet Buddy, who’s working the retirement-community circuit. “I know you’re out there — I can hear you decomposing,” he zings with trademark contempt. The room is a far cry from the TV variety show he headlined in 1955.
Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel, the same team who wrote the screenplay, devise a clever way for Buddy’s shot at redemption to materialize: Opportunity knocks when Buddy mistakenly shows up in an Emmy Awards “In Memoriam” tribute. Fake death becomes him. He attracts a movie offer and a go-getter agent, Annie Wells (Chasten Harmon). She takes a shine to Buddy despite the fact that he’s a bully.
That becomes clear when the plot backpedals to the Catskills, where Buddy started out and worked his shtick — mostly Borscht and below-the-belt gags. It’s where he met his wife Elaine (City of Angels Tony winner Randy Graff, a big talent in the slim role of a dutiful sitcom-y wife).
After the mighty Buddy has fallen, his corrosive mean streak takes a toll on Elaine and their daughter Susan (Shoshana Bean, the vocal MVP) as well as his true-blue, put-upon brother and manager Stan (David Paymer, who reprises his movie role).
Composer Jason Robert Brown (The Bridges of Madison County, 13) and lyricist Amanda Green (High Fidelity, Bring It On The Musical) have previously shown they can craft a catchy melody and a matching lyric. But along with the rest of the creative team, including director John Rando (Urinetown), who guides the less-than-deluxe-looking production, the songwriters haven’t presented a compelling argument that Buddy’s story expands as a musical. And at some points, it’s hard to determine if a character, Stan specifically, is actually singing.
Less-than-stellar belting isn’t the biggest issue. It’s that songs come and go without much of a trace because they’re bookmarks that anchor the story in place while the show idles.
Susan’s first song, “There’s a Chance,” is a prime example. It goes on for around three or four minutes when it boils down to one sentence: "I’m happy I’m up for a job." The same goes for her second-act showcase, “Maybe It Starts With Me,” in which this 40-year-old woman reckons with daddy issues.
Crystal carries lots of goodwill and knows his way around Broadway. His Tony-winning one-man memoir 700 Sundays ran there in 2004 and 2013. And he can carry a tune well enough, which he proved over the years when he hosted the Oscars.
Buddy spends a good deal of the time doing stand-up, so that part of the role is squarely in Crystal’s comfort zone. Interviewed on a talk show about job prospects, Buddy is asked what he’s got coming up. “Mostly phlegm,” he deadpans. It’s gross. It’s funny. It’s not a stretch.
A show about a comedian getting a shot at a new medium — for Buddy, a movie; for Billy, a Broadway musical — has a tidy meta tinge. Billy/Buddy’s brand of insult humor and verbal slaps make for a touchy subject in 2022. That’s worth noting. Good comic timing, after all, is no joke.
Photo credit: Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)