Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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
When Houdini opened his 1905 European tour in Newport, Wales, Alan, who stands before us about to offer his spectacle in the same theater, was ten. He wasn’t allowed to see the show, but fixed on the escape artist’s exploits and treated the “Houdini Book of Magic” like a Bible. (Chapters are intermittently demonstrated with sleight-of-hand and advice from the performer’s ghost.) Alan would’ve left school to pursue his passion had his dad allowed.
It was during this booking that Houdini legendarily managed to get out of a locked jail cell, retrieve his clothes in an adjacent, secured cell, dress, and exit the building just as a Chief Constable was smugly announcing to press they’d release him in three days. The protagonist’s tall-tale-worthy Gami (grandfather) is Chief here. Internal inquiry into the Newport Police creates “an ax to grind.”
Eight years later, the now world famous performer returned executing another “amazement,” Alan’s term for what he couldn’t call a trick. “Everything he does takes months of hours of practice and huge levels of skill and to call it a “trick”… well it’s a bit unfair I think.” This time the boy was front and center, in fact, unwittingly, a participant. His angry Gami wasn’t far behind.
Newport born and bred playwright Daniel Llewelyn-Williams has crafted this engaging piece by stitching together real events, some experienced by his recently deceased father, with fictional embellishment. The piece is written in evocative, local syntax. Two appearances by Houdini bookend.
A brief history of Newport (unnecessary), is followed by Alan’s family life, his training and aspirations as a magician and “escapeologist” – even the great Chinese Water Torture Cell was practiced in a 4’diameter pipe. A near fatal attempt by the boy to emulate Houdini on the landmark Transporter Bridge over Bristol Channel is relived before our eyes.“…You can see right through it, looks like it needs a good meal it does…” The tragedy that took place at town docks while building the world’s largest sealock is lucidly observed. (The key word is observed. This section would be more effective with emotion evoked by his father being one of the victims.)
Real events are illuminated in the program. I recommend reading it afterwards so as to take the journey without supposition.
Llewelyn-Williams inhabits Alan from ten to fourteen, his gruff, loving father, his Gami, Yiddish-accented Houdini, and townspeople. Each character has his own completely distinct voice and physical attitude. Transition is fluid. When relating the story he talks TO not AT the audience, focusing on individuals, drawing us in.
Firsthand incidents are made palpable by the artist’s focus and power of suggestion. From childhood excitement with locks “Pick, pick, pick, pick, pick, pick… Click!..OH! IT SAID CLICK! …” to near death experience to a surprising encounter with his hero, one feels almost present in real time. We see him see – often painfully, and feel with the character. Llewelyn-Williams wisely takes his time, provoking our own imaginations.
Director Josh Richards exercises finesse. Expressive gesture feels organic. Nothing comes from nowhere. The small stage is utilized with variety and verisimilitude. Pacing is pitch perfect. This was clearly a symbiotic collaboration. Easily fixable: the first time Houdini appears onstage/to Alan, it’s not clear who he is.
A skilled, entertaining, and imaginative play, foreign in context, but humanistically familiar.
Photos by Sheri Bankes
Flying Bridge Theatre Limited presets A Regular Little Houdini
Written and Performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams
Directed by Joshua Richards
Through December 31, 2017 59E59 Theaters
Playwright/actor Ed Dixon first met George Rose when, as a callow youth, he was cast in a touring company of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta The Student Prince. “I was young, pretty and could hit the high notes.” The British performer, 30 years his senior, was a respected character actor and unabashed homosexual – rare in the day. Dixon’s first impression? Underwhelming. Then Rose took the stage as Lutz, a typically vaudevillian turn. “He was outrageous, ridiculous, hilarious…with an uncanny ability to break through the fourth wall…” Captivated but “wary he might put his hand on my knee,” the nascent performer visited Rose in his dressing room. No such attempt occurred.
This is Dixon’s intimate story of the powerful relationship that supported early endeavors and made his life more colorful while teaching him about both theater and life. It’s an illuminating, warts-and-all portrait of the talented artist that became Dixon’s idol, then fell from a great height with dire consequences to both men – as told, it should be noted, with love.
The playwright is a terrific storyteller. We learn about Rose’s habit of calling all his dressers Lisette, attiring them in French maid’s aprons; of having mountain lions “in the second bedroom of an ordinary apartment on an ordinary street in Greenwich Village” and, later, after their harrowing demise, an ocelot. There are priceless quotes and song snippets enacted as if Rose whose comments knew no social boundaries and who used blue language like a truck driver queen. And oh, the alligator joke!
A roster of iconic British actors come briefly to life. Ralph Richardson leaned over Rose at the makeup table and advised, “When you’re all finished, look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, is it human?” We hear Noel Coward, Richard Burton, Peter Ustinov…
If Dixon looks at something not there, we see it. When words deny, while his body language does otherwise, we get it. Joy and surprise are infectious. Flamboyance is never quite over the top. Moving around the stage with grace, energy and precise gesture, now a character actor, he’s a pleasure to watch. “One by one I played all of George’s repertoire.”
The saga’s last chapter is empathetic horror. It’s as if something sat on our collective chests. Breathing slows as scenario becomes unspeakable. Dixon’s honesty not only about what he observed and felt but its personal aftermath is striking. We’ve been on his journey. The play ends with moving perspective.
Director Eric Shaeffer helms complete focus, visual variety, a sense of confiding, channeling rather than imitation, and excellent pace.
Dixon is simply wonderful. As is this play which is both entertaining and heart-rending.