by Deirdre Donovan
won’t hear a better storyteller on a Broadway stage this season than John
Lithgow. In his solo show, aptly titled Stories by Heart, the veteran
stage, film, and TV actor spins a long and heart-felt yarn for the audience
that is interwoven with humor, wit, and a profound humanity. As seamlessly
helmed by Broadway veteran Daniel Sullivan, it becomes a master class in the
art of storytelling.
fanfare or special effects. Lithgow simply walks onto the stage carrying an old
worn book in his hands, which he places on a small table at stage right.
Dressed in a black suit and a white open-necked shirt, he dives right into the
subject of storytelling by spotlighting his show’s title. “What is this Stories
by Heart? “ Without offering any facile answer, he shares that he will be
telling us two stories during the show that hold very special meaning for him.
homiletic tone continues as he tosses out a few questions to the audience: “Why
do all of us want to hear stories? Why do some of us want to tell them?” These
questions linger in the air throughout his entire presentation, just waiting to
be answered by Lithgow at the best time.
then gets down to the business of storytelling itself. He reveals that the two
leading players of the evening are the “fat volume sitting on the little table
over there” (The Teller of Tales) and his father Arthur Lithgow.
Lithgow smiles—and confides that if it weren’t for his dad he wouldn’t be
standing on the American Airlines Theatre stage at the moment or even be an
actor. Indeed, you could hear the proverbial pin drop in the audience.
Lithgow had us in the palm of his hands.
like children gathered around a campfire, the audience leaned in as Lithgow
gave us the vitals on his “old man.” He explained that his father was a “man
of the theater,” wearing the various hats of acting, directing, producing,
teaching—and organizing summer Shakespeare festivals in Ohio through the 50s
and 60s. And his mother Sarah? According to Lithgow, she was the “unflappable
road manager” who kept everything on an even keel and forever projected that
things were “just fine.” From Lithgow’s perspective, his wasn’t a typical
childhood but an enjoyable one. He, and his three siblings, delighted in
seeing the Bard’s plays staged in regional theaters, arriving in schools
half-way through a school year, and of course listening to a raft of bedtime
stories told by his dad.
to his dad, Lithgow absorbed a good deal of the classics as a boy. He tells
the audience that from a tender age he became familiar with stories by Edgar
Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, and “some seriously grown up stuff
like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Colette. . .” Lithgow impishly asks, “What was
[dad] thinking?” Though it’s quite evident from Lithgow’s expression that he
knows his dad was sowing in his fertile imagination the seeds for his future
then turns to a story that his dad often read to his young progeny called
“Haircut,” and adds that it was penned by that “gin-swilling cynic named Ring
Lardner.” Lithgow recites the story verbatim as he mimes the character Whitey,
the loquacious small town barber in Michigan who is giving a nameless customer
a haircut. Lithgow, as Whitey, couldn’t be more convincing, snipping away hair
from his silent customer and gossiping about the recent death of a local named
Jim Kendall. We learn that Kendall was a married man who drank too much,
played pranks to a fault, and chased women. That is, till one day he
‘accidentally” got shot by another local, a half-wit Paul whom he took on a
duck-hunting trip to a lake area.
one watches the minutiae of Lithgow’s performance, Lardner’s story comes alive
with all its funny twists and weird turns. And what starts out as gossip grows
into a subtle critique of adultery, alcoholism, and intolerance.
the first story is bone-chilling, the second, P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred
Flits By,” is a rib-tickler. But, strangely, Lithgow isn’t presenting it here
for its comic value alone. According to Lithgow, it’s a favorite because it
helped pull his father out of a deep, dark depression following his abdominal
surgery at age 86. In short, Lithgow witnessed a kind of miraculous
transformation in his dad as he re-read to him the adventures of Pongo
Twistleton and his infamous Uncle Fred. Much like the statue scene in The
Winter’s Tale where Hermione returns to life, his dad’s spirit rebooted
while listening to the bold adventures of Uncle Fred, a character who took
flimflammery to shameless new heights.
spoiling the delicious story here, Uncle Fred was the bane of his nephew Pongo
Twistleton’s existence. Worse, Pongo never knew when his Uncle Fred would come
calling to the “great city” and where he would decide to wander. On this
occasion, his 60-something year-old uncle decided to take Pongo on a trip to
the suburbs to visit an old family estate. But enroute to it, a rain storm
hits and the two find shelter at a villa called The Cedars. A poser
extraordinaire, Uncle Fred impersonates a lowly parrot claw-clipper, the
paterfamilias of The Cedars, and the neighborly Mr. J. G. Bulstrode (don’t
ask), all in the space of one soggy afternoon.
perhaps this might all sound sentimental and silly. But in Lithgow’s hands,
it’s not a bit. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” becomes more than just a
recitation of a literary gem. As Lithgow remarked in a New York Times article
(January 9, 2018), he’s in “the business of consciousness raising” as a
storyteller. And sometimes it can go beyond that—and dispel the depression of
his aging dad.
no accident that Lithgow’s presentation is smooth as butter. The Tony and Emmy
award-winning actor performed it in embryonic form at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi
2008, telling stories in repertory fashion under the direction of Jack
O’Brien. Lithgow then took it on the road for a decade, adapting and refining
the material in 35 cities across the country and in London at the National
rules here. The creative team (set by John Lee Beatty; lighting by Kenneth
Posner) smartly keep the props down to a minimum: the hefty omnibus Teller
of Tales, a large armchair, and a small table. And, oh yes, a glass of
water to make sure Lithgow’s vocal cords remain lubricated for the entire
Photos by Joan Marcus
is Lithgow’s valentine, not only to his parents, but to the theater. Lithgow
erases the line between storytelling and theater in his show and teaches us
that both forms intertwine— to borrow a line from P. G. Wodehouse—“like ivy on
an old garden wall.”
the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, Manhattan
more information, phone 212.719.1300
time: 2 hours with one intermission.