REVIEW: John Lithgow’s “Stories By Heart”
“So what the hell is this?!”, John Lithgow exclaims following a lengthy and well-deserved entrance applause in his one-man show, “John Lithgow: Stories By Heart”. He’s right to ask the question, because it is not entirely clear.
I was intrigued when “Stories By Heart” was announced for the winter slot at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre on Broadway because I always cherish the opportunity to see a seasoned and celebrated actor on stage, especially one with over 20 Broadway credits under his belt, and many awards to boot.
Mr. Lithgow is a perennial crowd pleaser and expert character actor who is so good at disappearing into the people he plays that it is all-too-easy to take his craft for granted. That said, I found this show to be disappointing and long-winded in its conception. Long in gestation, “Stories By Heart”, directed by Daniel Sullivan, has toured for ten years at a variety of venues in 35 cities nationwide. I venture to guess it probably works better in a more intimate setting than in a 740-seat theatre on Broadway.
The show is Mr. Lithgow’s love letter to storytelling, particularly the short stories his late-father, Arthur Lithgow (himself a theatre actor, director, and producer) read to him and his three siblings throughout their childhood. On a warmly well-appointed wood-paneled set by John Lee Beatty, simply consisting of an elegant oriental rug and wing backed chair centerstage, Mr. Lithgow explains the significance of storytelling to his early years, and introduces his only prop: an 80-year-old copy of the long out of print “Tellers of Tales”, a collection of 100 classic short stories selected by W. Somerset Maugham that was the very same book from which his father would read.
The fondness Mr. Lithgow has for the formative memory of his father’s performances at bedtime coupled with the reverence he holds for the very tradition of storytelling itself is sweet and charming. He caps act one by performing a short story, “The Haircut” by Ring Lardner, transforming into a barber cutting and shaving an invisible customer as he nonchalantly tells the story of a recent local murder. Mr. Lithgow gives a masterclass physical performance, but the story itself is long and convoluted. I found it hard to stay engaged and wondered: of all 100 stories in that book, is this one really the one to tell?
In act two, Mr. Lithgow shares the experience of returning to Massachusetts in 2002 to care for his ailing father, who, following an abdominal surgery, had lost his lifelong genial sprit, slumping into a quiet depression. Inspiration strikes when Mr. Lithgow discovers their family’s beloved, talismanic copy of “Tellers of Tales”, and decides to read his father a bedtime story, as his father had done for him many years ago.
The selection, “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G. Wodehouse, is much lighter and livelier than “The Haircut”, affording Mr. Lithgow the opportunity to play nearly a dozen different characters (including a parrot!) in a British farce about a mercurial uncle who visits once a year, bringing mayhem to the otherwise orderly life of his nephew, Pongo Twistleton. It is in this final sequence that Mr. Lithgow truly soars, displaying his remarkable skill as a character actor.
There is a lot of heart in “Stories By Heart”, and I suspect the show is much more meaningful for those who have had the life experience of reversing roles and caring for an aging and ailing parent. I have not.
For me, the best parts of the evening are Mr. Lithgow’s own stories, not the ones he performs, which, while entertaining and impressive, felt flat and rather one-note as five minutes turned to ten, and twenty, and so on. I wanted more of Mr. Lithgow’s lively recollections and reflections, and less choreful Lardner and Wodehouse, for, as he says at the start of the show: “all theatre is stories and all actors are storytellers.” When one of the best storytellers is on stage, you can’t help but want his stories.
Bottom Line: “John Lithgow: Stories By Heart” is actor John Lithgow’s love letter to storytelling in which he performs two short stories by Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse and shares a few of his own. Mr. Lithgow is charming as ever, and gives an impressive performance, but the show itself is disappointing and long-winded. I wanted more Lithgow, and less Lardner and Wodehouse.
“John Lithgow: Stories By Heart”
Roundabout Theatre Company
at the American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours (including one intermission)
Opening Night: January 11, 2018
Final Performance: March 4, 2018