By Stanford Friedman
On Twitter, John Lithgow’s bio reads, “Serial killer, alien high commander, transgender football player, children’s book writer.” This is to say that, at age 72 and a height of 6’4”, he is one of our most extreme, enduring and far-ranging character actors. Anyone who saw his excellent turn as the Trinity Killer on Dexter cannot doubt his ability to go dark. And 3rd Rock From the Sun fans are acquainted with his vast storehouse of silliness. Now, in his solo show, Stories by Heart, he takes on a variety of literary characters and takes time out to reveal himself. It makes for a relaxing, and tame, two hours. Mr. Lithgow is always colorful, but here he is coloring well within the lines.
Stories by Heart was created in 2008 and prior to this Broadway run Mr. Lithgow performed it in London and 35 American cities. It is as polished as polished could be. Each of the two acts begins with the actor telling us about his relationship with his father and of their mutual relationship with the art of storytelling. The play’s only prop is an old book, a 1939 collection of 100 short stories called Tellers of Tales. Lithgow’s dad would entertain young John and his siblings by reading them these stories at bedtime. Decades later, when pops grew frail, John turned the tables, keeping the old man energized by reciting the book’s stories for him. He performs two of them for us: Ring Lardner’s The Haircut as the opener, and P.G. Wodehouse‘s Uncle Fred Flits By for the closer. They are interesting choices in that they have nothing to do with anything. Not a whiff of politics or global warming, thank God, but also no contemplation of family or mortality, which seems a missed opportunity. The stories are clearly very meaningful for Mr. Lithgow, but just because a work is personal, does that make it theatrical?
Well, his interpretation of The Haircut is overly theatrical if anything. In it, he portrays Whitey, a small town barber with an evil laugh who is something of a vicious gossip and wrong-headed thinker. With a new customer in his barber chair, Whitey lets loose with a convoluted narrative about bad local folk involved in a possible murder. Under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, Mr. Lithgow’s pantomime of giving what seems to be the world’s longest shave and haircut overwhelms the storytelling. Unlike certain world leaders, Mr. Lithgow has huge hands, and they steal focus. His pinky had me mesmerized. Combine that with his vocalized sound effects of scissor snips and razor swipes, and Lardner’s gritty story falls flat. Uncle Fred Flits By, on the other hand, is a totally enjoyable piece of escapism. Rather than narrating, Mr. Lithgow, with his rubbery face, transforms into ten different characters, including a young girl and a parrot. And Wodehouse, of course, is a hilariously absurd and charming writer who, in this piece, deals with false identities and the craftsmanship of eel-jellying.
Designer John Lee Beatty creates as intimate a space as possible on the huge stage at the American Airlines Theatre, a warm and carpeted den with a big ole comfy chair, plus a stool and a small table. Fortunately for him, and for us, Mr. Lithgow, spry as ever and overflowing with multiple personalities, is an expert at filling a room by himself.
John Lithgow: Stories By Heart – Adapted and performed by John Lithgow, directed by Daniel Sullivan.
John Lee Beatty, Set Designer; Jess Goldstein, Costume Designer; Kenneth Posner, Lighting Designer; Peter Fitzgerald, Sound Designer; Roy Harris, Production Stage Manager. Roundabout Theatre Company (Todd Haimes, Artistic Director/CEO) at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, 212.719.1300, https://www.roundabouttheatre.org. Through March 4, 2018. Running time: 2 hours.