John Lithgow is a mighty fine actor, and an all-around decent fellow judging from two hours spent in his company at his solo show, “John Lithgow: Stories By Heart.” In the show, Lithgow proves to be a congenial host and raconteur, sharing literary enthusiasms and family anecdotes that invoke the feeling of a metaphorical fireside chat. All of this is diverting enough, but the evening itself doesn’t exactly catch fire.
The show began at the Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in 2008, after Lithgow had scripted the autobiographical musings and adapted the classic short stories that are the basis of the production. Lithgow has been presenting various versions around the country ever since. Now, with the steady guidance of veteran director Daniel Sullivan, Lithgow, who has a kind of revered elder statesman status in the acting community, has brought this divertissement to the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway.
In the first act, Lithgow enacts Ring Lardner’s iconic “Haircut.” The second is given to English humorist P.G. Wodehouse’s comedy of manners, “Uncle Fred Flits By.” Before each of these tales, we learn about Lithgow’s childhood and antecedents.
“Stories By Heart” is an homage to the actor’s father, Arthur Lithgow, a pioneering regional theater director and actor in love with Shakespeare. (Oddly, there is nothing of the Bard included here.) John Lithgow believes he owes his career to his father, whom he describes as capable of “working miracles.” Propped up by the resourceful practicality of his mother, Lithgow and three siblings thrived despite a peripatetic and financially uncertain childhood. Bedtime stories provided an anchor for the family and were read out loud by Dad from a collection edited by W. Somerset Maugham. (Lithgow shares the actual volume with a couple of lucky front row audience members.)
Spending time with an intact and loving family that is able to recast insecurity and adversity as an eccentric adventure adds a Norman Rockwell dose of comfort food to our fireside menu. Even better, these bonds of affection and admiration appear to have endured throughout the parents’ lifetimes.
The personal family history was in many ways the most fascinating story thread of all. I would like to have seen Lithgow overcome some of his characteristic Midwestern reticence and share more depth and detail of that history to answer the big questions he poses at the beginning of the play: “Why do all of us want to hear stories? Why do some of us want to tell them?”
Instead, we are treated first to a clever retelling of “Haircut,” a darkly satirical gem described as “one of the cruelest pieces of American fiction.” Lithgow brilliantly evokes the panoply of characters populating the small American town, complete with appropriate actor-generated sound effects and adroit physical gestures. Norman Rockwell’s America recedes as one begins to see Lithgow’s barber as potentially more Sweeney Todd than benign local busybody. It is a tribute to Lithgow’s subtlety and skill as an actor that we are — if you will forgive — kept on the razor’s edge of suspense as the story unfolds.
I found the second act less satisfying. Lithgow and Sullivan create high stakes for the ensuing comedy by positioning Lithgow’s reading of Wodehouse as both an emotional rescue of his now-aged and ill parents, and their answer to the human need for stories. Lithgow is theatrically savvy enough to know this can be a dangerous gambit. “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.” My preference would have been to allow the storytelling to seduce me without the prequel anticipating my response.
While conjuring a gallery of upper-class ninnies showcased Lithgow’s versatility, the portrayal of the various characters at times became overly broad, even as the escalating silliness encouraged buffoonery. Thankfully the mild malice implicit in Wodehouse’s satire of English class-consciousness prevents the story and characters from dissolving into total frivolity.
Lithgow performs on a very simple set (designed by John Lee Beatty) that is suggestive of a wood paneled study and ornamented by a single Queen Anne wingback chair. This minimalism reinforces the overall cozy ambience while demonstrating how little Lithgow requires to create theatrical magic.
Overall, Lithgow’s formidable acting prowess ensures that “Stories By Heart” is a largely heartwarming evening that charms within its modest conventions, even though it occasionally falls short of compelling.
“John Lithgow: Stories By Heart” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on Thurs., Jan. 11, 2018.
Creative: Directed by Daniel Sullivan; Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty; Costume Design by Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design by Peter Fitzgerald.
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company; Produced in association with Staci Levine.
Cast: John Lithgow