In the first five minutes, John Lithgow generates the kind of sentiment one experiences with the ephemeral fragrance of something mom cooked when you were a kid, light like the night you were first kissed, a tune flashing back to some sweet memory. Gentle, genial and authentic, the artist creates a comfort zone in which tension fades and spirits rise. Settle in. Attend. You’ll be glad you came.
“This, O my Best Beloved, is a story-a new and wonderful story-a story quite different from other stories…” (Rudyard Kipling- Just So Stories)
The art of storytelling has been with us from time immemorial. “Why do all of us want to hear stories,” Lithgow asks. “Why do some of us want to tell them? Why are you all here today? Think about that for a minute.” He disarmingly gives us the minute. This show, beautifully honed over a ten year period, is comprised of two short, enacted stories the performer’s father read to him as a child, loving memories of Arthur Lithgow, and, implicitly, philosophical answers to the above questions.
Lithgow père was a theater man to his bones, a “restless and prolific” producer/ director always “one step away from ruination.” (Mom Sarah Jane was a retired actress.) At the callow age of eight, a night out might mean Titus Andronicus. Bedtime stories ranged from Poe and Conan Doyle to Hemingway and “Collette, for God’s sake!” Arthur Lithgow played all the parts. “My life as an actor started on those drowsy evenings…” his son wistfully recalls.
The only stage prop this afternoon is a well worn copy of Tellers of Tales– selected by Somerset Maugham- copyright 1939. “This book, this actual copy, was a kind of family Bible….When I hold it in my hands now…pause…my father comes back.” The spine is repaired with red duct tape, the binding with cellophane, yet despite all that attention, its cover was restored upside-down. “That was my Dad: thoughtful, caring, meticulous, literate, inventive, handy…and just that little bit wrong-headed,” he says tender and bemused.
In Haircut, “written in the 1920s by a gin-swilling cynic named Ring Lardner,” Lithgow becomes Whitey, a long-winded, self important, small town gossip regaling an invisible stranger, his captive audience, in a raised leather chair. Merely untucking his shirt, an adroit light change, and we’re back there and then. (Kudos to Lighting Designer Kenneth Posner who subtly affects and enhances throughout.)
Mime – from spritz, clip, and dollop to patting on aftershave, is meticulous. The customer’s head never varies its position. Watch Lithgow’s fanny – jerk around the misjudged front of his client. Sound effects are wonderful. I lost count of the character’s distinctive laughs/giggles at eight.
Midwestern words like winda (window) Saurdee (Saturday) and n’well emerge tripingly off the tongue. We’re drawn in by what appears to be a blithe spirit only to find ourselves caught up in adultery and violence. Whitey suddenly goes quiet as memories visibly parade behind his eyes like Zoetrope images. Aaaaand… lights! Pacing is impeccable.
Act II begins with the last year of Arthur Lithgow’s life. The octogenarian needed help with everything, which is precisely what John gave him. “I was in way over my head and unbearably sad…” At a loss how to raise his hero out of deep depression, the actor decided to read aloud. He retrieved the patched up Tellers of Tales and, on a wing and a prayer, asked which story his parents would prefer. They chose P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred Flits By.
If you’re at all familiar with Wodehouse, you can imagine what straits Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred gets them into when, one rainy afternoon in the country, he misrepresents their identities, fabricates a family scandal, and manages to finagle the forbidden marriage of a poor “pink chap” who jellies eels to a pretty, upper middle class girl. Oh, and then there’s the parrot! (Lithgow does parrot cum laude.)
The performer’s exaggerated characterization and Monty-Python-worthy walks are accompanied by an arsenal of voices. Between action and REaction he demonstrates the timing of good farce. Male expressions look like John Held Jr. jazz age drawings, women’s rather like fish. Lithgow is, by the way, not reading. Both dramatizations are learned and acted out. Somewhere, midway into performing the story for Arthur and Sarah Jane, magic happened.
And this, O Best Beloved, is why we tell stories and why we listen.
John Lithgow is warm, inventive, and utterly charming. He owns every moment of this potent pleasure from hokum to heartache. One can only hope there’s a sequel.
This version of the presentation is directed by Dan Sullivan whose talents here are both broad and nuanced. There’s never a dull moment.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
John Lithgow: Stories By Heart
Adapted and Performed by John Lithgow
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
American Airlines Theater
227 West 42nd Street
Through March 4, 2018