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“So what the hell is this?” asks John Lithgow at the beginning of his one-man Broadway show. It seems a reasonable question, considering the evening consists mainly of the veteran, multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor delivering renditions of two short stories with which most audience members are probably unfamiliar. Storytelling is, of course, an ancient tradition, with its popularity stronger than ever in this age of audio books and podcasts. But despite the performer’s estimable talents, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart smacks mainly of self-indulgence. The charms of Lithgow’s chosen stories prove only intermittent, meaning the show will appeal chiefly to the most ardent of fans — and even they may find their patience tested.
Stories by Heart expands on a piece Lithgow performed at Lincoln Center 10 years ago and clearly represents a personal project for its adapter-performer. He informs us early on of how he came to love short stories thanks to childhood bedtime readings by his father, who founded several theater companies in Ohio including the Great Lakes Theater Festival. Those stories came from Tellers of Tales, an anthology published in 1939. Lithgow tenderly holds up his battered copy of the book for our examination, explaining that it represents the show’s “only prop.”
The evening’s first half features Lithgow performing Ring Lardner’s Haircut, in which a chatty Midwestern barber regales a client with a tale that starts out deceptively lighthearted but eventually encompasses themes of adultery and murder. Despite the actor’s expert delivery — the way he recites the phrase “love at first sight,” his voice exuding a sweet giddiness, is thoroughly charming — the piece has all the impact of a tabloid magazine article you’d read while getting your hair trimmed.
Returning after intermission, Lithgow, for some reason, makes a show of unbuttoning his pants and tucking in his dress shirt, prompting the inevitable silly catcalls. He then delivers a touching account of how he temporarily moved in with his elderly parents after his 86-year-old father underwent major surgery that left him physically depleted and seriously depressed. It was only when Lithgow read aloud P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred Flits By to him that his father’s spirits were finally lifted.
Unfortunately, the silly tale isn’t likely to have the same effect on the audience (although, to be fair, more than a few people were laughing uproariously). Wodehouse’s very British literary style, heavily dependent on wordplay, is an acquired taste, and those who are not already fans may find their minds wandering during the 45-minute reading. Lithgow’s delivery proves faultless; it’s a robustly physical comic performance in which he plays numerous characters, including a winking parrot, and employs a variety of accents. But even as you admire his virtuosity, the suspicion arises that the story was chosen primarily because it showcases those skills.
Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the piece has been given an expert production, enhanced by John Lee Beatty’s homey, wood-paneled set featuring little more than a comfortable easy chair, a small table and a stool. Kenneth Posner’s warm lighting — which keeps the house lights up for the first several minutes, as if to emphasize our collective involvement in the act of storytelling — strives to intensify the intimacy of the proceedings.
Ironically, the most resonant moments of Stories by Heart come not from the stories Lithgow recites but rather the personal anecdotes he shares. However, those are not enough to compensate for the thinness of this gussied-up literary reading, which seems out of place in a large theater charging steep Broadway prices. It’s like a meal that leaves you feeling stuffed while wanting more.
Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York
Performer-adapter: John Lithgow
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Peter Fitzgerald
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, in association with Staci Levine
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