LOS ANGELES — BILLY CRYSTAL: `MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO MOSCOW' HBO (cable). Premi`ering tomorrow, 10-11:30 p.m. Repeats Oct. 25, 29; Nov. 2, 7, 10. Comedy special. Produced by Robert Dalrymple. FOR Billy Crystal, the molding clay of comedy is human character.
Of all the top comics of his generation - Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Gary Shandling, David Letterman, Steve Martin - Crystal is perhaps the most thorough student of people, popping the bubbles of pretense without deflating the dignity of man.
The ability to sort out these universals and the skill to portray them winningly are what make him the perfect candidate to present what is being billed as the first American comedy special of the glasnost era to be filmed in the Soviet Union. Essentially a fine pastiche of stand-up comedy filmed live at the Pushkin Theater, ``Midnight Train to Moscow'' is also a single narrative tied together with film clips as a sort of personal ``Roots''-style saga (some of Crystal's family is Russian). Part of the joy of this performance is the challenge of having to bridge the gap of two cultures, two value systems.
The demand is for a comedic sophistication that reaches beyond puns, one-liners, and standardized American standup shtick. Not to mention politics. Unlike the usual comedy special, this one has a rare improvisational quality. Viewers get to squirm alongside Crystal as he tries to see what will fly and what won't, as in one early sequence where he teaches audiences how to stand and sit in the ``wave'' so popular to American sports arenas. It flies.
The motif that sets this special in motion is a takeoff of the recent hit film ``Field of Dreams'': In the film an otherworldly voice promises, ``If you build it [a baseball field], he [a legendary player] will come.'' For Crystal, the otherworldly message is: ``If you go, take a jacket.'' It turns out Billy Crystal's real-life grandmother was born in Odessa, and, as Crystal tells his wife, ``The voice is telling me `Go to Moscow, do a show, and find out where [you] come from.'''
Crystal turns on the orginality and intelligence in wonderful impersonations of such celebrities as Robert DeNiro, Yakov Smirnoff, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, and others. Crystal is also in good form as Hollywood producer Barry Pedalman, speaking to an exasperated committee. His theme park will include Borscht Lake (``Ride a wild yak''), Siberia Land (``where kiddies go when they are bad''), Refusenik Jamboree (for Vegas-style shows) and Solzhenitsynville (for reading). This and two or three other skits were filmed away from the Puskkin Theater performance. There is also footage of Crystal clowning on the streets of Moscow with ordinary citizens.
But the best stuff comes on stage, where Crystal delivers a monologue in Russian, offers a tribute to Charlie Chaplin set to Tchaikovsky, and mimes a debate between Mikhail Gorbachev and opposition leader Boris Yeltsin, accompanied by jazz music. The theme for all his bits is a gentle, we're-not-so-different theme of joke-nost. ``I was raised thinking you were the enemy,'' says Crystal. ``You were raised thinking I was the enemy. We were both wrong. ... It's the French.''