“Mr. Saturday Night” is Just Not Very Funny
In Mr. Saturday Night, the musical based on Billy Crystal’s eponymous film from 1992, we meet Buddy Young, Jr. (played by Crystal), an aging Jewish comic who looks back at his illustrious career and craves to return to the spotlight. Caught in this desire to make something of himself again, are his wife Elaine (Randy Graff), brother and manager Stan (David Paymer), daughter Susan (Shoshana Bean), and newfound agent Annie (Chasten Harmon).
Things happen fairly simply in the plot—soul searching, relationship mending, changes of heart, forgiveness. When an opportunity to embark on the second coming of his career (again, fairly easily) presents itself to Buddy, he takes it, screws it up, quickly makes things right, and then cards fall into their destined places.
While storylines like this can be comforting in their predictability, they can also stand out as being “too simple” amidst a sea of other narratives that are trying to break out of molds and tell stories in ways that are new and (often) difficult for audiences. Mr. Saturday Night doesn’t offer comfort or laughs in its linearity, instead, it becomes evident that no change is going to be monumental enough to shake the characters out of their comfort zone.
If I knew someone like Buddy Young, Jr., I would not want to hang out with him. He is full of himself, brash, selfish, and often rude and disrespectful. There isn’t much in Buddy’s behavior to cheer for—it doesn’t help that he drags everyone around him into his mopey state and makes things quite difficult for his brother and wife, while also throwing his daughter deeper and deeper into a state of self-loathing and despair.
Susan seeing a therapist is brought up in conversation a few times before we see her in an appointment after which she decides to “fix” things in herself that’ll help fix things with her parents, who were mostly absent and inaccessible throughout her childhood. Bean shines in a role that doesn’t allow her to do much, and when she sings “Maybe It Starts With Me” in her distinctive voice, we forget about the gross injustice the play does to her talents, for a bit.
Another woman who has to shoulder the responsibility of “fixing” Buddy (and his sinking career) is Annie, who (in the musical) has been recast as a Black woman; a departure from Helen Hunt who played her in the 1992 film. When we first meet Annie, she is doing her celebrity PR agent’s dirty job of blowing off Buddy Young, Jr. not only does Buddy disrespect her (for doing her job), he also has no faith in her professional talents because she doesn’t know the names of the comedy “greats” of yore. The girl does her homework, changes her mind, and decides to “fix” the very man who can barely remember her name. Elaine wants to escape her life with a perennially unhappy husband and live in Tahiti but holds on to her marriage hoping for things to change, just so her husband can feel satisfied.
Scott Pask’s set design does a great job of spanning decades and locales—his recreation of the back lawns of a 1950s Catskills resort is beautiful and lends other-worldly ephemerality to a scene where Buddy and Elaine meet as their younger selves. Within minutes, we move from the 1950s to 1994, and then back and forth. Pask does this seamlessly and without any preface; trusting the audience to note the passage in time and place.
Jason Robert Brown’s music is tasked with the job of carrying forward a sluggish narrative—so while there are the occasional bursts of brilliance, as in Graff singing “Tahiti” while in a daydream, unfortunately, as a whole there isn’t quite the musical comedy magic we’d expect from a collaboration between veteran composers like Brown and stars like Crystal, Paymer, and Graff.
Editor’s note (05/05/22): This review was edited from the original. Due to a lack of clarity, poor editing choices, and awareness of historical context, the original text caused pain and harm to many of our readers. We are grateful for your feedback and will take this opportunity as a learning moment. We promise to be more mindful of the ways in which we can hurt communities when we don’t think carefully about the weight of our words. As one of the most culturally/racially diverse teams of critics in NY theater publications, we strive to celebrate and unite, rather than create division with our work. We take responsibility for the harm we caused and extend our sincere apologies to our readers. – JS
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