John Lithgow, a Tony winner for his very first Broadway show in 1973, has decided to devote his 24th to the reading of two old short stories, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” and “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G.Wodehouse. But John Lithgow: Stories By Heart differs from your basic library storytelling hour for several reasons, and not just because tickets cost as much as $149.
Lithgow doesn’t just read the two stories; he performs them, bringing to life each character using an impressive arsenal of voices, elastic facial expressions and other tricks of the acting trade gained from an illustrious, wide-ranging career on stage and screen. John Lee Beatty’s set is minimal, resembling a scaled-down version of the patrician set used by the host of Masterpiece Theater – a paneled wood wall, a stuffed armchair, an end table with a glass of water — but Peter Fitzgerald’s sound effects and Kenneth Posner’s lighting subtly enhance the theatricality of the storytelling.
Before each story, Lithgow also tells us at some length why they matter to him. These amount to something of a memoir of his father, and it is no denigration of the short stories to say that Lithgow’s well-told personal anecdotes are what provide much of the heart in Stories by Heart.
The two short stories he has chosen, he explains, come from a 1939 anthology called Tellers of Tales, edited by W. Somerset Maugham, from which his father Arthur Lithgow, read to his four children while they were growing up. (The thick old book and a glass of water are Lithgow’s only props.) “You could say that my life as an actor began on those drowsy evenings at bedtime,” John Lithgow tells us, although it’s possible it began even before that. The elder Lithgow was himself a theater actor, director, producer and teacher, who created several summer Shakespeare festivals, at least one of which still exists. “It’s one of the bright little pleasures of my life speaking his name out loud on a Broadway stage,” John Lithgow says. (Arthur Lithgow did in fact perform in three plays on Broadway in the 1930s, before John Lithgow was born.)
Arthur Lithgow first read “Haircut” to his son when John was only eight years old, which comes as something of a surprise once we’ve heard the story, “a light comedy of small town American life that slowly turns into a gruesome tale of adultery, misogyny and murder,” as Lithgow describes it afterward. “Haircut” was published in 1925, and in some ways shows its age: There is a reference to movie star Gloria Swanson. But it turns out to be suddenly and remarkably relevant, something that Lithgow could not have anticipated. A small-town barber, while administering to a new customer, tells him about one James H. Kendall, now deceased. The barber laughingly calls James a prankster, “just bubblin’ over with mischief,” and clearly both enjoyed his company and considered him a friend. But as we listen to the stories the barber tells, we realize that James was a jerk of the highest order, who deserves his eventual comeuppance — a drunk, an abusive husband and father, and (the crux of the story) a first degree harasser of a pretty young woman in the town. We also see that the barber, by his repertoire of appreciative reactions to his friend’s supposed high jinks, is complicit in the man’s evil-doing.
After an intermission, Lithgow introduces “Uncle Fred Flits By,” first published in 1935, as the story that kept his father alive. After a life-saving surgery, Arthur was despondent….until his son read him Wodehouse’s comic tale, and he began to laugh uncontrollably. “I’m convinced that it was sometime during the reading of that story that my father came back to life…The next day my Dad started to rally. His health and his good humor started to come back.” Lithgow is aware of the contrast between the lovely, moving story he tells of his father, and the silly nonsense of Wodehouse’s story: “I hope I haven’t promised too much. I’ve long since learned that, when it comes to humor, one man’s rose is another man’s garlic.”
“Uncle Fred Flits By,” a 1935 story that introduced Wodehouse’s hapless recurring character Pongo Twistleton, is a rose to Lithgow, as he obviously delights in impersonating a series of British eccentrics in a convoluted comic tale that centers on the outrageous behavior of Pongo’s uncle, Lord Ickenham. As enjoyable as his spiced-up performance is – at several points, his exaggerated expression seemed to turn him into a living comic strip – it sometimes had the effect of upstaging Wodehouse’s language. It’s true that many lines got terrific laughs – “If he had a mind, there was something on it” – but some of Wodehouse’s wit is best appreciated on the page. There is, for example, a running joke about a parrot in the house that Uncle Fred has invaded. At an especially tense moment in the narrative, Wodehouse writes, “…there was a weighty silence, during which the parrot threw out a general invitation to the company to join it in a nut.”
To those who might complain that Stories By Heart would be a better fit in a smaller theater or at least one with more affordable tickets, fret not: Lithgow has been performing versions of Stories by Heart around the country for 10 years. He’s not going to stop now.
John Lithgow: Stories By Heart is on stage at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater (227 West 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, New York, N.Y. 10036) through March 4, 2018.
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