Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 11, 2018
John Lithgow: Stories by Heart Adapted by John Lithgow. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Cast: John Lithgow.
Despite the personable charm of the performer and the polished quality of the performance, this last bit is not easily brushed aside. Nor is it easy to get past the fact that what the evening mostly consists of is Mr. Lithgow performing two stories from a collection edited by W. Somerset Maugham more than 75 years ago, culled from the canon of works by dead white men. It is, of course, entirely relevant that the selection of stories carries a personal meaning for the actor; it represents the same kind of emotional pleasure that floods back to me when I recall my father reading aloud. But still, it is a missed opportunity to give us a better reason for paying attention than to see an assuredly talented actor showing off his skills.
Stories By Heart is Mr. Lithgow's pocket production, his very own "Mark Twain Tonight," a solo recital that he has carried with him around the country on and off for the past ten years, to college campuses, concert halls, and other venues, including an early Off Broadway run at the Mitzi Newhouse. It is an act he has nurtured and burnished over time, and it certainly allows him to flex his performing muscles through the intersection of dramatic enactment and the older and more universal craft of storytelling.
The entire enterprise is deceptively simple in its conceptualization. Create an evening of theater around two longish short stories by transforming what essentially is a reading into an accomplished display of acting. Act I is centered around a story written in 1925 by Ring Lardner, "The Haircut." It is a rambling monolog told by a small town barber to a customer, a captive audience and an outsider, not unlike ourselves. The story itself starts off seeming like a winking tribute to provincial America and then gradually shifts to a tale that exposes its dark underbelly. For Act II, Lithgow brings us P. G. Wodehouse's 1935 story "Uncle Fred Flits By," a very funny tale by a master of wry humor about the foibles of the British upper class. If you remember the TV series about Jeeves and Wooster, a butler and the befuddled gentlemen he serves (brilliantly portrayed by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie), this story is of that same ilk, filled with delightfully quirky characters and comic situations.
Of the two, there is no doubt that "Uncle Fred Flits By" is the raison d'être for the evening. It is the perfect marriage of story and performer, and it comes mighty close to justifying those aforementioned Broadway prices. It is, Mr. Lithgow tells us, the story he read to his elderly and ailing father toward the end of his life when the actor moved in with his parents to be their primary caregiver. Truly, the "heart" of Stories By Heart beats loudest when Lithgow is talking about his family, and especially his father, Arthur Lithgow, who worked as a regional theater producer, director, and actor. His dad roared with laughter over "Uncle Fred Flits By," and his son pours every ounce of love and joy into his performance of the story about a visit by an outlandishly eccentric relative.
Less successful is the Lardner piece that fills most of Act I. The story itself is dense and challenging to follow, much more trapped in the time period when it was written. Lithgow takes on the role of the garrulous barber, and he pours everything he has into bringing "The Haircut" to life. But there is too much of a visible sales pitch here as the actor strains to convince us. Because Lithgow throws so much into resuscitating this old wheeze, it might have been the perfect opportunity to offer up a brief master class in acting by discussing his approach to the story and his performance choices. Then, with the far superior "Uncle Fred Flits By," he could simply invite us to sit back and share in the pleasure of watching the polished and finished product.
In the first few minutes of Stories By Heart, Lithgow makes a promise that he fails to keep, which is to move beyond the stories themselves in order to engage us into two larger questions: "Why do all of us want to hear stories, and why do some of us want to tell them?" Directly addressing these questions, perhaps along with the weightier one about whose stories get to be told, would make for a far meatier evening and would have provided a much stronger context for the actual storytelling. While the tidbits Lithgow shares about his family and his presentation of "Uncle Fred Flits By" are decidedly entertaining, these are not enough to justify the evening.