John Lithgow Tells “Stories by Heart”

Thursday, February 1, 2018

As you sit in the American Airlines Theatre waiting for John Lithgow: Stories by Heart to begin, you may covet the John Lee Beatty set. It’s a large, oak-paneled room with an invitingly plush chair center stage. The cozy, woody space evokes quiet reflection, an escape from the world, meditation. There’s just one thing lacking: books. If this were my room, I’d fill it with shelves of the bound papery stuff. Not to worry: When Lithgow makes his entrance, he carries the only volume we’ll need for the night.

It’s a well-worn but carefully preserved copy of Tellers of Tales, a 1939 anthology of short stories selected by W. Somerset Maugham. Lithgow informs us that this very book was the one his father, Arthur, kept in the family home in Ohio, to read aloud to his spellbound kids. That’s the state that Lithgow proceeds to put us in for two delightful hours, reciting a pair of stories in between funny and touching anecdotes from his childhood. 

john lithgow stories by heart

Lithgow had a peripatetic upbringing due to his father’s fitfully successful (but often stressful) career as a theater impresario and actor-manager specializing in William Shakespeare. Arthur Lithgow was in love with the Bard, and his acting sounded delightfully old school (someone less charitable might say hammy); he was clearly enraptured by the written word given breath for maximum comic or dramatic effect. His son inherited the obsession and gift. Over the decades, Lithgow’s outsize, full-bodied performances in movies such as The World According to Garp and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and on television in 3rd Rock From the Sun have marked him as a character actor comfortable with slapstick as well as arch, stylized banter.

He brings his whole bag of tricks to Stories by Heart, delicately shaped and grounded by director Daniel Sullivan. The first part is a fully enacted recitation of Hart Crane’s “Haircut,” a monologue delivered by a gossipy, small-town barber. While miming his character’s tonsorial duties (hot towel, sharpening the razor, lathering the face, etc.), Lithgow tells an initially comical, eventually sinister tale of romantic jealousy, betrayal, and revenge. The performer has a wonderfully light touch, garrulous and self-amused, as the narrative shades inexorably into American Gothic mode.

After intermission, the tone lightens, in a sense. Lithgow recalls how, toward the end of his life, his father became nearly bedbound, and his mother wasn’t in much better shape. For several months in 2002, Lithgow moved in with his aged parents to take care of them. How could he lift his father’s morbid depression? By reading to him, of course.

Lithgow then launches into a splendidly zany rendition of “Uncle Fred Flits By,” a farcical dish by the prolific P.G. Wodehouse. You may know Wodehouse as the creator of the breezy twit Bertie Wooster and his sage manservant, Jeeves; this is a tale about Bertie’s Drones Club mate, Pongo Twistleton. I won’t spoil the utterly silly plot, except to note it involves a nervous Pongo and his uncle Fred (5th Earl of Ickenham), who always causes trouble when visiting the city. Lithgow’s comic timing and juggling of spot-on voices is impeccable.

Reading to his father, Lithgow believes, extended the man’s life. Anyone who loves literature—consumed in silence or zestfully shouted aloud—will heartily agree: Stories are oxygen. Head over to the Roundabout Theatre Company and breathe deep.

Why You Should Go: A pair of short stories come to vibrant life thanks to one of America’s most expressive character actors.

Details: John Lithgow: Stories by Heart American Airlines Theatre 227 West 42nd Street (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues), Midtown Through Sunday, March 4 $39–$149

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