In 2002, when his 86-year-old father was gravely ill, award-winning actor John Lithgow read stories to him at his bedside – the same stories his dad Arthur Lithgow, a regional theater artist to whom he attributes his own career on stage and screen, had read to him as a child. That heartfelt experience inspired him to create a tribute to the father he idolized, to his ever-cheerful and supportive mother Sarah, and to the transportive and invigorating values of storytelling, in John Lithgow: Stories by Heart. The original solo show, presented in a limited-engagement Broadway premiere by Roundabout Theatre Company, is the latest incarnation of a work he first devised for Lincoln Center Theater in 2008, telling one tale each night in repertory and subsequently touring the evolving piece around the country.
The current two-act production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, features Lithgow actively performing his stage adaptations of a pair of short stories from the early decades of the 20th century: American writer and columnist Ring Lardner’s unsettling slice of small-town Americana “Haircut” (1925); and English author and humorist P.G. Wodehouse’s class-conscious British farce “Uncle Fred Flits By” (1935), both of which he selected from his family’s 1939 anthology of favorites. They are framed in the context of his personal memories, and interspersed with his own very touching reminiscences, anecdotes, and philosophizing.
Vaguely reminiscent of the setting for the introductory segment of PBS’s old Masterpiece Theatre, the show’s design is simple, warm, and familiar, effectively supporting the intimacy of the actor’s recollections, the immediacy of his first-person direct-address commentary, and the time-honored style of the classics. Lithgow, wearing a traditional white shirt and suit (costume by Jess Goldstein) and holding his sole prop – his family’s well-worn original vintage volume of Tellers of Tales (a collection of 100 popular short stories selected for the tome by W. Somerset Maugham) – enters a classicizing wood-paneled and coffered room that is tastefully furnished with an upholstered Queen Anne-style chair, an Oriental carpet, and a wooden end table, stool, chair, and desk (set by John Lee Beatty). Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Peter Fitzgerald’s sound give focus and clarity to the self-described “exuberant flamboyance” and “feverish energy” that the younger Lithgow inherited from his elder, as he moves around the space, rearranges the furniture, plays a variety of old-time characters, and enthusiastically enacts their stories.
The choice of material is surprising but revelatory, in terms of what was considered humorous in the last century (but has become offensive now) and of the adult themes to which the young Lithgow was exposed from an early age (explaining that he saw his first production of Shakespeare’s brutal bloodbath Titus Andronicus – “not exactly children’s fare” – when he was eight!). In Act I’s “Haircut,” set in a fictitious small Midwestern town in the 1920s, the actor relays a sardonic tale from the perspective of a gossiping barber, giving a shave and a haircut to a newcomer in his shop, while also giving him the scoop on the local gin-swilling prankster (read sociopathic bully) Jim Kendall. Lithgow assumes the local vernacular, mimes the barber’s actions, provides the sound effects of his scissors snipping the stranger’s hair with the clicking of his tongue, and affects an odd chortel as he expresses his delight over Kendall’s mean-spirited antics. His performance is enthralling, and he elicits an appropriately shifting reaction from the audience, as the mood of the story becomes increasingly dark and disturbing, and Kendall gets his ultimate comeuppance – much to the clueless dismay of the barber. It is, the actor admits, “a gruesome tale of adultery, misogyny, and murder” that, as a child, he thought was “great!”
The tone lightens in Act II, with “Uncle Fred Flits By” (the story that got his ailing octogenarian father laughing again). Portraying nearly a dozen characters, including the narrator, a watchful grey parrot, and the “irascible flimflam artist” of the title, Lithgow engages full-throttle in hilarious over-the-top histrionics, adopting caricatural facial expressions, exaggerated movements, and distinctive British accents, and embracing an overall “loopiness” that befits the story and keeps the audience in stitches. The contrast between the two Acts showcases Lithgow’s skill at a wide range of characterizations and emotions, as he explores the roots of his craft by bringing to life the old tales from his childhood.
Even if you question his selection of stories for a current audience (and he admits that “when it comes to humor, one man’s rose is another man’s garlic”), what is abundantly clear in John Lithgow: Stories by Heart is how much the star relishes his career as a thespian and raconteur, how deeply embedded in his life are his love of acting and appreciation for storytelling, and the debt he owes to his beloved parents for giving all of that to him.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
John Lithgow: Stories by Heart plays through Sunday, March 4, 2018, at Roundabout Theatre Company, performing at the American Airlines Theatre – 227 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 719-1300, or purchase them online.
Video courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company.