Theater Review: John Lithgow Shines in One-Man Show 'Stories by Heart'

Craig Schwartz
Playing multiple roles, including a parrot, the actor turns the telling of two short stories and a poem into a fulfilling evening of theater.

The perfectly conceived title of John Lithgow's solo piece is as straightforward and uncluttered as the text and the production's design elements.

The actor capitalizes on his wit, warmth and acting prowess to present a fulfilling evening of theater at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

When the show premiered in New York in 2008, Lithgow's performance of literary works included a poem (Oliver Wendell Holmes' The Deacon's Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay) and one comic short story, Uncle Fred Flits By, by P.G. Wodehouse. In a 2009 London run, Lithgow added Ring Lardner's Haircut. The Taper production includes all three pieces.

Though Jack O'Brien was credited for helming the previous engagements, no director is cited at the Taper. It's uncertain whether some of Lithgow's commentary changes during the run. In any case, the show elicits a wonderful sense of spontaneity.

The poem and two short stories were read to Lithgow and his siblings by his father and grandmother in their Massachusetts home. Lithgow recounts a moving anecdote of his father surviving a high-risk surgery while in his 80s, emerging from the ordeal in a dispirited state. Lithgow explains that he read these two short stories to his gravely ill father, sparking a renewed sense of high spirits in the patriarch.

Lithgow takes on multiple roles, including a parrot, while cavorting his way through Uncle Fred Flits By. Incorporating British accents and a lot of deftly performed physical shtick, he enlivens this narrative of a young man who is taken on a whimsical journey by his uncle.

There's more depth in the second-act offering, Haircut, structured as a monologue. Lithgow takes the role of a jolly and garrulous Michigan barber who tells of the outrageous shenanigans of a shiftless local prankster whose idea of fun lapses into cruelty. The piece serves as an ideal counterpoint to the fanciful Wodehouse story.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum (through Feb. 13)
Presented by: Center Theatre Group
Conceived, written and performed by: John Lithgow
Lighting design: Eric Cornwell
Produced and managed by: Staci Levine