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A CurtainUp Review
John Lithgow: Stories By Heart

All theater is stories and all actors are storytellers. So tonight you're going to hear two stories. Two short stories: one in Act I, and one in Act II.
— John Lithgow, introducing his solo ode to storytelling and his parents that, after ten years in various permutations, is now playing at Broadway's American Airlines Theater.
John Lithgow
John Lithgow (Photo: Joan Marcus)
John Lithgow charmingly and amusingly expands on his above quoted introductory comments about what to expect during the two hours you'll be spending with him at the Roundabout's elegant Broadway venue. Besides demonstrating the art of storytelling with Ring Lardner's "Haircut" and and P. G. Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By" he will share his reflections about why these particular stories connect to his life. Recreating his father's vivid bedside reading sessions of these stories from a 1939 Somerset Maugham short story anthology is a tribute to the pleasures of stories as audible experiences. It also frames his storytelling with a wonderfully moving tribute to both his parents.

While this is Mr. Lithgow's debut with the Roundabout, various versions of this combination memoir/dramatized audio book reading has been part of his Tony and Emmy award winning resume for a decade. It's one of those easy to produce and widely appealing pieces that have been akin to an actor's annuity. (For specifics, see my 2-part feature on the solo play: Part 1 and Part 2).

There's no question that Mr. Lithgow is terrific. He's charming and a physically as well as vocally masterful storyteller. Director Daniel Sullivan has given his show's Broadway arrival a handsome but wisely unfussy production. But whether two recreated remembrances of stories his father told to him at his siblings when they were young, is really a theatrical outing worth the high price of admission depends on whether you share Mr. Lithgow's enthusiasm for this type of storytelling and these particular stories, one of which actually helped the senior Lithgow to emerge from a deep depression.

To repeat my own full disclosure in the first part of the above mentioned solo play feature give me a choice between spending a couple of hours with a cast of at least two or three relatively unknown actors on stage and a solo with a big box office name attached to the title, and I'll pick the one with the cast of more than one. You see, somehow I tend to find it off-putting to have an actor, no matter how famous, break down the fourth wall and enlist me as partner. That said, I'm always ready to be won over, which indeed happened quite a few times mos recently with Billy Cruddup in Harry Clarke. And in the case of Mr. Lithgow's Stories by Heart, there were times when his charisma and skill did draw me in.

To add to my full disclosure about solo shows, I'm not an audio book fan; also, while I love short stories and probably read and liked some of the selections of that Maugham anthology that serves as Mr. Lithgow's only prop, neither the Lardner the Wodehouse stories would be my top choices for re-reading. In fact, admirable as Mr. Lithgow's morphing into the various voices and personas is, I was much more engaged by his personal recollections and would have been more so throughout if the piece had a more biographical focus, shades of Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays which was also a tribute to his parents.

Lithgow certainly embodied that gossipy barber and Wodehouse's Uncle Fred, who actually appeared in other Wodehouse stories and novels. And, judging from the enthusiasm of the packed house at the matinee I attended, the Roundabout's choice to bring this show to Broadway is financially sound.

But for all of the very effective championship of storytelling, a repeat element in everything about this production seems out of sync with the times we're living in: The writer and star is a much lauded older white man and the stories he tells were written by successful white writers. The Roundabout's artistic director and the play's director too are successful older white guys —ditto for the entire team, with the exception of assistant stage manager Denise Cooper. Lithgow does mention that a Colette story is in the Maugham anthology he so treasures (rightly so as available copies are hard to find and could cost even more than a ticket to see the show). If she were still alive, she'd surely demand more than a Me-Too moment.

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John Lithgow: Stories By Heart
Written and performed by John Lithgow
Directed by Daniel Sullivan.
Sets: John Lee Beatty
Lights: Kenneth Posner
Costumes: Jess Goldstein
Sound: Peter Fitzgerald
Stage Manager: Roy Harris

Assistant Stage Manager: Denise Yaney
Running Time: 2 hours, includes 1 intermission

American Airlines Theater 227 West 42nd Street
From 12/21/17; opening 1/11/18; closing 3/04/18
Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8:00PM, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00PM and Sunday matinees at 3:00PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/12/18 press performance

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