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John Lithgow: Stories By Heart

John Lithgow
John Lithgow
John Lithgow, P. G. Wodehouse, Ring Lardner — three sophisticated very funny men. Nearly 40 years after his first Tony win for The Changing Room, Lithgow brings Wodehouse and Lardner to life on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum in this astutely done one-man show.

He strides on stage with mischievous mien and begins the story of his childhood. The son of a stage actor, he led a peripatetic pillar to post life. Leaping over time until his father's 86th year when, recovering from serious surgery, the old man requires John to help with his recuperation. Mom at 84 is there too. Desperate to distract, John recalls a beloved old book and finds Uncle Fred Flits By by P. G. Wodehouse published in 1935. As he reads the story, he hears the first rumble of laughter from his father.

This story, with ten characters plus a parrot, begins with a narrator with an English accent and continues into the wilder forms of expertise. Uncle Fred and his browbeaten nephew are taking a walk in the rain until increasing showers drive them onto the porch of a large old house. The doorbell is inadvertently pushed and the visitors find themselves within. Various callers follow, including a young beauty named Julia, and the aforesaid parot.

Act II begins with a story of Lithgow's school days, a succession of firsts so harrowing it brings back vivid memories to anyone who ever suffered at the hands of contemporary monsters. Perhaps that's why the barber, who is the only character in Ring Lardner's story "Haircut" (1925), is so obtuse. His silent client, over whom Lithgow fusses with persnickety care and unceasing giggles, is treated to small-town gossip of the pernicious kind.

Jim Kendall, a ne'er-do-well who's fired from his sales job, bounces from one low-rent job to another, playing devilish pranks as his real love. His hapless wife and children are the brunt of one prank, when Jim catches them trying to filch his pay. They're reduced to tears until the new young doctor comes along and saves the day. There’s a beauty named Julia in this story too but the resemblance ends there. This Julia, a target of Jim’s amorosity, is the target of a particularly mean-spirited prank. "Don’t see her on Main Street any more," chortles the barber. There's also a character called Poor Pete, who is the recipient of many of Jim's jokes, until one day the denouement comes.

The first play is a laugh-fest for the audience with its varied characters, its diverse accents and its ribald humor. The second is a one-man interpretation of life in a small town — both the obtuse barber and the prankster Jim could never loom large any place else.

Lithgow is wonderful. He's chosen period stories which reveal his actor's talents without competing with contemporary angst. Well chosen and well done!

John Lithgow: Stories by Heart
Conceived and Written by John Lithgow
Lighting Design: Eric Cornwell
Produced and Managed by Staci Levine
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Reservations: 213-972-7231.
When: January 5-February 13, 2011
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on January 5.
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