John Lithgow poses a few existential questions for theatergoers at the beginning of the solo show that he has developed, performed, and tweaked for about a decade: Why do we want to hear stories? Why do we like to tell them? Why do we sit in theaters for hours at a time watching people act them out?
"What exactly are you hoping for?" he asks.
To American audiences who immerse themselves daily in the narratives of countless films and TV shows, these questions might seem academic: Stories are such a huge part of modern life that it's easy to forget we consume them voraciously on a regular basis. But the questions are worth considering, and Lithgow helps provide some answers when he cracks open a book onstage and does something most of us would now consider old-fashioned: He reads to us.
Well, he doesn't actually read; he has memorized the two short stories that he recites and performs during the two acts of Roundabout Theatre Company's production of John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, now running at the American Airlines Theatre. For two hours, Lithgow tries to re-create the experience that his father gave him and his siblings when he read to them from a hefty tome of short stories called Tellers of Tales, edited by W. Somerset Maugham (Lithgow has the original family copy with him onstage). He has chosen two of those stories — Ring Lardner's frequently anthologized "Haircut" and P.G. Wodehouse's comical "Uncle Fred Flits By" — as exemplary of the power that storytelling has to entertain and, in some cases, revitalize a listener. Unfortunately, as a theatrical work, Stories by Heart yields mixed results.
Lithgow begins both halves of his show with biographical prologues. The first introduces his father, Arthur, a peripatetic actor who loved reading to Lithgow and his siblings when they were children. "You could say that my life as an actor began on those drowsy evenings at bedtime. That was when I first experienced the simple power of great writing and spoken words," he says moments before sweeping an invisible barber's cape in the air and becoming the chatty narrator in "Haircut," a darkly humorous story about a local prankster who meets an untimely end. Clicking his teeth to mimic clipping scissors while he laughs infectiously, Lithgow shows his exquisite acting talent as he becomes Lardner's gossipy barber. Yet halfway through, the story itself fails to grab hold with sufficient theatrical interest, and the performance loses steam. "Haircut" is perhaps one of those stories best enjoyed on the page rather than the stage.
The second act offers more in the way of action. Lithgow prefaces the Wodehouse story with a moving anecdote about his father's poor health and his subsequent convalescence soon after Lithgow reads "Uncle Fred Flits By," one of the family's favorites, at his father's bedside. The story, about an eccentric uncle who leads his reluctant nephew in an outrageous series of escapades, has plenty of comical bits for a great actor like Lithgow to play with. He quickly changes from Uncle Fred to the nephew Pongo and several other characters (including a parrot) with an extensive vocabulary of humorous grimaces and facial contortions. Here, Lithgow is in top form, with his wide-ranging physical comedy standing in stark contrast to the relative inertia of the first act.
Despite Lithgow's acting prowess and the nostalgic appeal that Stories by Heart promises, director Daniel Sullivan hasn't whipped things up enough to make the show into engaging theater. John Lee Beatty's stuffy, strangely barren set doesn't help matters, with its wood-paneled walls and professorial wing chair suggesting a study or library in a large house (it seems odd that Beatty did not include bookshelves). The staid scene, dramatically transformed all too infrequently by Kenneth Posner's overly subtle lighting design, is a far cry from the setting of a bedtime story, but it has the same soporific effect.
Audiences may leave Stories by Heart pondering Lithgow's initial questions and wondering what they hoped they'd get out of it and what they actually got. If nothing else, perhaps his infectious love for the written word may inspire some to reach for that old anthology gathering dust on the bookshelf and revisit a tale or two.
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