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John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

A first-rate piece of theater that showcases Lithgow’s inestimable skills as an actor and performer, even as it comes to focus on two particular stories.

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John Lithgow as he appears in “Stories by Heart” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

In 2008, John Lithgow “cooked up” a pretty “slapdash affair” of a one-man show which he appeared in for a number of Monday nights at Lincoln Center, before taking it on the road in the intervening years–to, he calculates in a story in the New York Times, about 35 different cities. In the process, he has honed it into a first-rate piece of theater that showcases his inestimable skills as an actor and performer, even as it comes to focus on two particular stories, told apparently in their entirety:  Ring Lardner’s short story Haircut and P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred Flies By.

But in John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, Lithgow tells an even more compelling tale about growing up with his father Arthur Lithgow, an actor who taught Shakespeare even as he opened and ran Shakespeare festivals throughout the Midwest. Lithgow’s peripatetic experience with this show is not unlike, in other words, his father’s experiences when his son John was growing up. Though it’s truly sui generis, Stories by Heart is reminiscent of Lynn Redgrave’s tribute to her father, Sir Michael.

It was also while John was growing up that Arthur Lithgow gathered his children and read stories to them from a large book: Tellers of Tales, which contains 100 Classic Short Stories (as selected by W. Somerset Maugham), including the two that serve as the centerpiece of this particular play.

John Lithgow as he appears in “Stories by Heart” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The show begins when Lithgow arrives on stage with that very book, and purportedly the original one, as he shows us its repaired cover and spine and somewhat battered condition. “So what the hell is this,” says Lithgow, as he opens with a question, “this Stories by Heart?” The answer becomes the show itself, which is not only the telling of those two tales but descriptions of his father’s younger productive years and then, in the second act, of his failing years, when the tables were turned, and John read from the same book some of the same tales to his parents to try and coax his father back to life. And according to Lithgow it worked, particularly with the very funny Wodehouse story, which comprises the bulk of Act II, as it spins out of increasingly hilarious control.

Back in Act I, the Lardner tale commences as Lithgow untucks his white shirt from his pants and it becomes the smock he wears as the small-town Midwestern barber who narrates Haircut. Though each story has stories, not to mention, virtues of its own, it’s Lithgow’s telling them–with an absence of any props, but with the powers of his magical actor’s voice–that makes them so richly rewarding. While clipping away with invisible shears, he miraculously creates the clinking sound of the scissors with his vocal apparatus even as he continues the barber’s monologue about the tragic circumstances of several other town-members to his customer, a new resident.

And then there are Lithgow’s facial expressions, such as his subtle registering of disbelief, as he relays the improbable and gruesome plot of Titus Andronicus, which he first learned about when he was a child. But nowhere do his physical mannerisms and expressions receive more of a workout than during Uncle Fred Flies By, during which he becomes the six or seven different characters we meet in rapid and overlapping succession.

John Lithgow as he appears in “Stories by Heart” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The looks of terror on Fred’s nephew Pongo’s face are nothing less than priceless, as we learn about Fred’s taking over a complete stranger’s house and then having to contend with various visitors. Then, too, there’s the caged parrot in the house that Lithgow also becomes, with a wickedly cocked eye. Whoever knew that Lithgow could prove so versatile–and all in the course of 40 minutes or so which it takes him to realize the Wodehouse tale?

Lithgow has been ably abetted by his director Daniel Sullivan, by John Lee Beatty’s single, but elegant wood-paneled set and Kenneth Posner’s effective and subtle lighting effects.

John Lithgow: Stories by Heart (through March 4, 2018)

Roundabout Theatre Company

American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212- 719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org

Running time: two hours and ten minutes with an intermission

A first-rate piece of theater that showcases Lithgow’s inestimable skills as an actor and performer, even as it comes to focus on two particular stories.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (89 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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