The solo show is one of Broadway’s best-established genres, but it’s also enervatingly unvaried. Far too many of the one-person shows that open there are cliché-encrusted exercises in theatrical taxidermy in which a famous actor pretends to be a famous historical figure. While the best such shows can be spectacularly effective vehicles for a great performer, most of them leave you sneaking peeks at your watch and muttering, “Is he ever going to die?” Not so “Stories by Heart,” in which
following in the hallowed footsteps of
reads two of his favorite short stories out loud and tells us how he came to know them. That’s all there is to “Stories by Heart,” and it’s more than enough. Rarely have I spent so entertaining a night at the theater—or witnessed so touching a tribute to a departed parent.
John Lithgow: Stories by Heart
Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
$39-$139, closes March 4, 212-719-1300
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Therein lies the secret ingredient of “Stories by Heart,” which is both a one-man show and an act of filial piety.
Mr. Lithgow’s late father, spent much of his life founding summer
festivals at a time when such enterprises were rare. He was, as Mr. Lithgow gently hints in “Stories by Heart,” a bit of a ne’er-do-well, but one whose passion for theater usually kept his head above water. It was his longstanding custom of reading short stories out loud to his four children that inspired his now-famous son to put together this show, most of which is given over to “readings” of
“Uncle Fred Flits By,” two of the family’s favorite tales.
I put the word “readings” in scare quotes because Mr. Lithgow doesn’t really read either story: He acts them, quickly disposing of his only prop, the very same battered copy of “Tellers of Tales,” the anthology of short stories edited by
from which his father read to the Lithgow children once upon a time. What’s more, he acts them to the hilt, turning “Haircut” into a dramatic monologue with a head-turning reveal and “Uncle Fred Flits By” into a one-disaster-after-another farce from which the only thing missing is pratfalls. He even supplies his own sound effects, and it turns out that he is both a master of onomatopoeia and a virtuoso mime to boot (it’s almost worth the price of admission just to see him play aparrot in “Uncle Fred Flits By”).
Mr. Lithgow is a paradox, a serious actor with a funny face whose energy is comic. Hence he was born to perform “Haircut,” a cinder-black vignette of small-town life told by a deceptively cheerful barber who is in truth a walking pustule of malice. Lardner’s once-celebrated short stories are no longer widely read, but watching Mr. Lithgow bring “Haircut” to suppurating life made me want to run right out and hunt down a copy of his “How to Write Short Stories—With Samples.”
Unlike Lardner, Wodehouse has remained popular to this day, and Lord Ickenham, the protagonist of “Uncle Fred Flits By,” is one of his most beloved characters, a genial sociopath who delights in fomenting roiling chaos in the guise of “spreading sweetness and light.” Mr. Lithgow clearly has great fun bringing him to life—possibly a bit too much fun. You can tell from watching his elaborate presentation of “Uncle Fred Flits By” that he’s spent the past decade performing and polishing “Stories by Heart,” and I rather wish that
the director, had suggested that he tone down the comic effects a notch or three. On the other hand, Mr. Lithgow is so naturally funny that he gets his laughs anyway, and it’s not hard to forgive a fair amount of overacting when the results are so pleasurable.
Roughly a third of “Stories by Heart” is reminiscence, but you won’t begrudge Mr. Lithgow for spending so much time talking about his father. I almost wish he’d told us even more, since he clearly has complicated feelings about the “sweet, crazy man” who towed his family all over America in search of applause, usually “just one step ahead of ruination.” The predominant sentiment in “Stories by Heart,” however, is love, and I’ll say nothing about the story that Mr. Lithgow tells about his aged parents at the top of the second act other than this: Make sure you tuck a clean handkerchief in your pocket before you go to the American Airlines Theatre. You’ll need it.
—Mr. Teachout is the Journal’s drama critic. “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” his first play, opens at Houston’s Alley Theatre on Feb. 24. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org