|JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART|
If we’re to believe John Lithgow, his reading of P.G. Wodehouse’s delectable short story “Uncle Fred Flits By” allowed his aging, ailing parents to sleep peacefully. But if his performance of this tall tale at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre in his enchanting solo piece, “John Lithgow: Stories By Heart,” is any evidence, I would think they would have been up all night giggling at the memories of their son’s exuberant recitation.
An expansion of the show of the same name presented a decade ago at Lincoln Center (then directed by Jack O’Brien, now helmed by Daniel Sullivan), “Stories by Heart” provides a brief glimpse into Lithgow’s personal life, a soupcon of philosophy, and, most importantly, an extended look into the power and joy of listening to great writing -- especially when handled with true expertise by one of our foremost stage performers.
On John Lee Beatty’s simple wood-paneled set, Lithgow begins both acts by sharing reminiscences of life with his family, most notably his father, Arthur, an actor and theatrical impresario of sorts whom he describes as “thoughtful, caring, meticulous, literate, inventive, handy… and just that little bit wrong-headed.” These simple yet poignant recollections truly make up the heart of this two-act piece, and I might have been just as content to hear Lithgow spend all two hours onstage regaling us with memories.
But I can’t really quibble with the bulk of program, which comes directly from “Teller of Tales,” a short story collection that Lithgow describes as the “family bible.” In Act I, he recites Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” a monologue delivered by a small-town barber full of local gossip and seemingly unconnected anecdotes that rather suddenly twists into something Neil LaBute might have written. (Yes, Mr. Lithgow, this was an odd story to read to an eight-year-old boy!) Simply by untucking his shirt and adopting a midwestern accent, Lithgow handily morphs into the story’s narrator, who keeps our attention throughout the rambling tale.
Still, the star’s true triumph occurs in Act II when he enacts Wodehouse’s flight of fancy about a visit to a London suburb by the Earl of Ickenham (aka “Uncle Fred”) who insinuates himself, for no discernibly good reason, into a local family kerfuffle about whether a young woman can marry a local eel jellier. Here, playing a slew of characters – from a snobbish woman to the Earl’s meek nephew -- Lithgow really allows himself to cut loose, employing numerous accents, physical manifestations and distinctive voices –and above all, his keen sense of comic timing – to make this story come vividly to life.
The result is a tour-de-force that, among other things, makes you wish the actor was available for private reading of bedtime stories. True, I still think it might take me a while to fall asleep once he was done, but I would have a smile on my face and no bad dreams. Perhaps, he’ll consider some special late-night performances of “Stories By Heart”?
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 12/21/2017
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036