The Showing and Telling of
"Stories by Heart"
John Lithgow: "Stories by
Roundabout Theater Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 W 42nd Street, New York City
Playing now - March 4, 2018
Tickets at www.roundabouttheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours
Lithgow performing "Stories by Heart." Photo by Joan
For many a theatergoer, John Lithgow,
the much loved 72 year old actor could read from the phone book and
his legion of stalwart fans would gift him with countless oohs, ahs,
and a standing ovation. In fact, given his four decades long award-winning
Film and TV appearances – 6 Tonys, six Emmys, two Golden Globes,
Four Grammys, and two Academy Award nominations for The World According
To Garp (1982) and Terms of Endearment (1983) – all Lithgow
would have to do is walk across the stage and he would be greeted
with a tsunami of applause. This is exactly what is happening every
night at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre where he is performing
his one man show "Stories By Heart" through March 25.
Mercifully, leaving his phonebook home, the ever-charming Lithgow
gives us a couple of classical short stories, both taken from Tellers
of Tales a 1939 anthology edited by W. Somerset Maugham, the best
way he knows how by acting them out. In Haircut (1925), a 2 character
tale written by Ring Lardner (1885-1933), Lithgow plays an extremely
talkative barber giving a haircut, along with a cascade of small town
gossip, to a near-silent customer. In Uncle Fred Flits By (1935),
a rollicking British story by P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), the versatile
actor gets to impersonate, British accents and all, a slew of idiosyncratic
For the record, a one act version of Stories By Heart was performed
at Lincoln Center in 2008. Since then, in between countless other
engagements, Lithgow has honed these stories to a fare thee well for
ten years. Prior to this Broadway production he has performed these
stories in 35 American cities, an experience, as he tells us during
personal asides, which allowed him to visit cities, most of which
he never ever thought of visiting.
Each story, nearly a century old, was first read to Lithgow and his
two brothers and one sister by their show biz father some sixty plus
years ago when they were growing up. As Lithgow relates, it is these
same stories which he read to his father who had recently undergone
a life-saving operation more than a half century later; an act that
miraculously restored his father's will to live. As for me, and I
imagine many other avid readers, whether being introduced or reintroduced
to Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse, Lithgow's performance will have
us searching the shelves of local libraries and bookstores, or contacting
Amazon, to follow up on this actor's literary gift. In this respect
Lithgow's performance is educational.
performing "Stories by Heart." Photo by Joan Marcus.
The most demanding, and least enjoyable
of the two stories being performed is Haircut. The lack of any real
action and few truly suspenseful events to keep our eyes moving and
our minds invigorated, coupled with a torrential raining of words
is something of a strain on our ears. What does keep any interest
that we might have is watching Lithgow's exacting pantomime of an
old fashioned haircut, as he relates the story of various towns' denizens
to his customer. Here Lithgow, brilliantly miming every physical hair-cutting
and face shaving movement and possible instrument sound without the
use any props like scissors, combs, brushes or sprays, engages our
imagination to its fullest. Most enjoyable in this presentation, in
fact I actually waited for it to appear again and again, is his joy-triggering,
high pitched, long-drawn out giggles that he uses intermittently throughout
this monologue. Still and no doubt about it, to get the full blast
of Lardner’s satirical style, Haircut is a lot better read than
It is P.G. Wodehouse’s story – one of the most widely
read humorists of the 20th century – Uncle Fred Flits By, the
second of the two stories presented, which elicits cascades of laughter
from the audience. Hopping about John Lee Beatty's sparse set, a chair,
an end table a glass of water and a book, a lithe and energetic Lithgow
gets to inhabit a panoply (some ten or so) of zany characters in an
even zanier story.
The two main characters of the story are Pongo Twistleton and his
aristocratic uncle, Lord Ickenham whose outrageous behavior which
grows by leaps and bounds in the most unexpected ways, has us in stitches.
It is the reading of this very story, as Lithgow tells us before he
embarks on its performance that brought his father back to life. Let
it also be said that it is this very same story that allowed the audience
to leave the theater amidst gales of laughter and a double gross of
Mean Shaggy Dog Stories Told by John Lithgow
"Stories by Heart."
Based on "Haircut" by Ring Lardner and "Uncle Fred
Flits By" by PG Wodehouse.
Adapted and performed by John Lithgow; directed by Daniel Sullivan.
Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42
Opened Jan 11, 2018; closes March 4, 2018.
Lithgow. Photo Joan Marcus.
Actor John Lithgow is a charmer and always
a pleasure to watch how he creates characters with voice, accent and
a scrunch of the face. These two short stories lend themselves to
his talents, though I have to admit, they might be better read and
opened by the imagination. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, I didn’t
find them terribly engrossing.
Both these shaggy dog stories reveal a meanness in characters, who
get their comeuppances.
In Ring Lardner's "Haircut," a barber is chatting up patrons
about the town's scandals. The anti-hero is a fellow who fakes out
a young woman. You get all the details. Lot of sexism there, which
doesn't perturb the good barber.
In PG Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By," an irascible fellow
who lives in the country subjects his London nephew to his occasional
forays into town. This now involves a walk in the country that is
interrupted by rain that forces them into a house whose residents
are not at home. A little drama will occur. There arrives a young
man who wants to marry a young woman whose parents think they are
above his station.
The house parrot gives Fred the opportunity to introduce his nephew
as a local vet. The man hides behind a couch (rather unlikely). When
the parents arrive with the young woman in tow, they hoping the homeowner
relative will use influence to stop the romance, Fred interferes.
So, maybe this is a shaggy parrot story.
But in spite of Lithgow's talents, he can't make me care about these
old, vaguely disturbing tales.
Visit Lucy’s website http://thekomisarscoop.com/