January 20, 2018

Why I Didn't Love "Stories By Heart"

When theater lovers want to express their deep devotion to an actor as formidably talented as John Lithgow, they often say they would be content to listen to him if he were just reading the phone book (not that anyone publishes those much anymore). 

I've been a big Lithgow fan too, applauding the virtuosity that ranges from his zaniness in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to the dramatic deftness of his recent Emmy-winning performance as Winston Churchill in the Netflix series "The Crown." But I'm now not so sure about the phone book thing because I barely made it through Stories by Heart, the one-man show Lithgow is doing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre through March 4.

It may be sacrilege to say that because Lithgow is performing short stories written by Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse, masters of the form and beloved by generations of readers for both their genial humor and their shrewd insights into what high school English teachers like to call the human condition.

The first act of Stories by Heart is devoted to Lardner's "Haircut," a monologue in which a small-town barber gossips about his neighbors as he shaves and shears a local newcomer. It starts off folksy and funny and then takes a sharp Hitchcockian turn into the darker byways of the human condition.

Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By" is a more fulsome farce about an eccentric aristocrat, his browbeaten nephew and the people they encounter during one of the uncle's free-spirited adventures. But it too makes instructive observations about the careless ways humans sometimes treat one another.

Lithgow performs both with gusto. Under Daniel Sullivan's light-handed direction, the actor uses his rubbery face, limber body and a passel of accents to impersonate all the characters from the chatty barber to a smart-alecky parrot.

Through it all, he's aided only by a handful of props that include an easy chair, a glass of water and a copy of "Tellers of Tales," a 1939 short story anthology edited by W. Somerset Maugham.

The book also provides the narrative glue for the evening. It is, Lithgow says, the actual taped-together volume that his dad Arthur, an itinerant pioneer in the regional theater movement, read to his four children when they were small and that Lithgow later read to his father toward the end of the older man's life (click here to read more about all of that).

Those reminiscences—the kids mesmerized by their father's bedtime storytelling, the old man lifted from his depression by the welcomed levity of familiar passages—are the emotional core of the evening. I wish there had been more of them.

For despite Lithgow's ebullient performance, these old-fashioned tales failed to hold my attention. I found my mind drifting off, particularly during the Wodehouse story, whose loopy characters and their bon mots proved too slight and slippery for me to grasp.

My fellow audience members were split. The man sitting next to my husband K giggled with delight at Uncle Fred's antics. The two couples in the row ahead of us left at intermission.

Still, the continuing love Lithgow feels for his father—and for the mystical power of storytelling—shines through. Seemingly unwilling to let go of his father, Lithgow has been performing various incarnations of this show across the country almost since Arthur died in 2004 at the age of 88. It's a profound tribute—and perhaps an apology—from a son who became more successful than his father in the profession they both revered.

And so despite my disappointment in Stories by Heart, its underlying story got to me. When I got home, I logged onto Amazon.com and downloaded Lithgow's 2011 memoir "Drama: An Actor's Education." 

It's a beautifully written book and, like the show, much of it is inspired by Lithgow's recollections of his father in his prime and in his decline when sharing the stories in "Tellers of Tales" helped give the old man the will to live. 

But "Drama" opens up to tell much more about these two ardent storytellers. And if you get the audiobook version, you can even hear the younger Lithgow tell it to you.

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