Review of John Lithgow: Stories by Heart on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    January 16, 2018
    Review by:

    It has now been confirmed. Lithgow is pronounced LithGO as in “Snow” not LithGOW as in “Plow”. We have heard it from the proverbial horse’s mouth. We have heard more as well. Stories of course – as the title Stories By Heart would indicate. There are two lines of stories here. The first is about John Lithgow’s family who hailed from Ohio. In particular we are treated to the great unending theatrical endeavors – many unsuccessful - of his father Arthur, one of which, the Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland is still going over 60 years later. The hit and miss of his father’s endeavors caused the family to be their own touring company as they moved from one town to the next. The most memorable of his father’s accomplishments was his telling of stories. The source book was "Tellers of Tales" – a collection of 100 short stories by mostly white men (thank God for Collette) that was pretty much the family bible. Lithgow’s father performed these stories for his children, no matter their appropriateness. Titus Andronicus anyone???  Lithgow has the family heirloom with him on the stage and begins by telling the story of its conservation and restoration. A cockeyed tale in itself.

    We are treated to two of these stories – "The Haircut" by Ring Lardner and "Uncle Fred Flits By" by P.G. Wodehouse. I was surprised by the choice of material, having thought that Lithgow would choose to share with us some of the hundreds of characters he has portrayed over the decades. But this evening is intended as an homage to his father and mother, to writing, and to storytelling itself. 

    "The Haircut" is an old fashioned monologue by an old fashioned barber in an old fashioned town where the barber shop was the town green. On this particular day the barber is welcoming a stranger and nattering on in that nervous way folks do when they want to impress someone. This barber shop was where all the local men came in to report, question, speculate and entertain. One in particular, Jim Kendall, was the town’s self-appointed king. He did not suffer fools gladly and was known to play a mean trick or two on people. It was his way of squashing the innocent like bugs. One of his objects of attention was a kid named Paul who was silly in the head since that time he fell out of a tree. As the tale unfolds it is clear to us who dunnit, but it doesn’t dawn on the barber until the tale is told.

    The second, "Uncle Fred Flits By," is a delicious Wodehouse pastry. It is filled with mountains of Wodehouse’s sumptuous prose and dotted with one plot twist after another like a very slow car pile-up in the snow. This is a recounting of one of Lord Ickenham’s visits to London – or perhaps you could call it one of his banishments from the countryside. If what he gets up to in London is any indication of how he lived his life in the country, his banishment to London would be the only way his wife would have remained sane. On this visit to his nephew Pongo, he takes them off to an old ancestral home where he manages to slither into the house itself and welcome several unexpected visitors. As the story unfolds Uncle Fitz rescues star crossed lovers, converses with a parrot and serves tea. Lithgow gives us 10 fully formed characters and the parrot as well.

    Lithgow has been touring this show for 8 years, and there is no mention of a director, so I suspect a lot of this was devised on his own. Well, that is storytelling is it not? On this large stage, however, a bit of nuance couldn’t hurt. I don’t know how much Daniel Sullivan was able to offer in the way of direction, but it seems as though he was outnumbered. In both stories Lithgow does his share of indicating rather than experiencing. The barber’s clicks as he cuts hair become a kind of melody that mesmerizes the audience and becomes more important than the story itself. His miming of lather, razor, towels and after shave also pull us out of the story to marvel at his dexterity. In Wodehouse, the characters’ physical differences blend and become lost as one pinched face morphs into another. And each is held a few beats too long as if to imprint on us exactly which character is speaking. It is Wodehouse’s writing that pulls us through.

    I so wanted to love this production. I am a huge fan of Lithgow’s television and film work. He always appears to be having a swell time. His focus and energy are captivating. Same here. In spite of the meandering performance in Stories, Lithgow himself is completely engaging. The audience responded as if on cue, and the Wodehouse story had everyone but me howling. As I was leaving the theatre I overheard one audience member: “This is the first show where I didn’t fall asleep once!”

    When the evening begins, Lithgow asks  - Why do all of us want to hear stories? Why do some of us want to tell them? These questions are never answered, although we come close as he tells us the story of how he became the story teller for his parents at the tail end of their lives.

    And not for nothin’ - Lithgow does a fabulous Parrot.

    John Lithgow: Stories By Heart Tickets are available now for performances through to March 4, 2018 at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)


    What the popular press says...

    "To begin with, give Mr. Lithgow a sound effects award. And then give him one for spiritual effects, because “Stories by Heart” is delightful: illuminating the stories, uplifting us."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "Most noteworthy is this Tony- and Emmy-winner’s easygoing charm, along with his talent for creating distinct voices and visages for characters... Lithgow’s show is personal and has heart. But it also has a weak pulse. Long story short: The two-hour piece, directed for the Roundabout by Daniel Sullivan, makes for a slim evening."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "It is hard to imagine who, aside from John Lithgow, could fashion a Broadway show from a pair of bedtime stories and not make everyone fall asleep. Yet there the actor is in Stories by Heart, alone on a stage whose simple wood furnishings and paneling evoke the absence of John Lee Beatty’s usual grand sets for the Roundabout Theatre Company, with nothing to keep us on the hook but Lithgow’s masterly cultivation, confidence and warmth."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Storytelling is, of course, an ancient tradition, with its popularity stronger than ever in this age of audio books and podcasts. But despite the performer's estimable talents, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart smacks mainly of self-indulgence."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    "John Lithgow is the most personable of performers, and his chatty solo piece John Lithgow: Stories by Heart finds him in a mellow mood, sharing loving memories of his family and of the stories they used to read to one another. The two stories he tells in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway staging of the show — Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” and “Uncle Fred Flits By,” by P.G. Wodehouse – are charming examples of the ones that his dramatically disposed father recited to his audience of four spellbound children."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily NewsTime Out - Hollywood Reporter - Variety