“Teller of Tales”
Designer John Lee Beatty has enclosed John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, a tour de force one-man show for the Roundabout Theatre Company, within an expansive, unadorned, even slightly sterile wood-paneled room with coffered ceiling, artfully lit by Kenneth Posner. Suggesting anywhere from a private men’s club to a university conference room, it would have been better to scale it down to more intimate proportions, or even to present the show in a smaller venue, like the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.
|John Lithgow. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Nonetheless, it’s a tribute to his talent and charm that the tall, graceful Lithgow, still lithe and impishly boyish at 72 despite his receded, towering, silver hairline, is able to entertain his audience for two hours (with one intermission) on such a stage with little more than a rug, an upholstered chair, and a stool.
Tieless, in a gray suit and white shirt (credited to Jess Goldstein), Lithgow performs his own script, which he’s been developing for a decade. In it, he “reads” two stories to us while also discussing the art and power of storytelling via an autobiographical account centering on his late father, Arthur Lithgow, whose memory the show enshrines. The most poignant part of his personal narrative concerns the healing effect the star’s reading had on the spirits of his father (and mother) during Arthur’s last days.
The elder Lithgow, a distinguished college professor, actor, producer, and director (who staged all of Shakespeare’s plays), loved reading stories to his children, especially those in a 1939 collection called Tellers of Tales, edited by W. Somerset Maugham. The actual book (apart from a glass of water), proudly displayed on several occasions, is the only hand prop he employs.
Act One is devoted to a 1925 story by Ring Lardner called “Haircut,” for which Lithgow removes his jacket and pulls out his shirttails to represent a tonsorial tunic. Using nothing but a stool, he portrays a Michigan small-town barber called Whitey giving a “newcomer” to town a shave and a haircut as he gossips about some local characters, particularly a man named Jim Kendall. Whitey, oblivious to the cruelty of Jim’s behavior, makes chattily amusing anecdotes of Jim’s hurtful pranks, behavior that eventually led to Jim’s violent demise.
Lithgow describes the story as “a light comedy of small-town American life that slowly turns into a gruesome tale of adultery, misogyny and murder.” It’s as much a character study of the garrulous barber’s obtuseness as it is a reflection of small-town life. In Lithgow’s remarkably deft performance (excellently directed Daniel Sullivan), as Whitey laughs and giggles at Jim’s exploits, it also perfectly captures the way barbers went about their business in the old days.
We watch Lithgow’s marvelously precise mime of jacking the customer’s seat up or down by stepping on a lever, searching his shelves, deploying hot towels, applying powder, skin bracer, and cologne, stropping a straight razor, applying lather, pinching the man’s nose as he shaves him, and using only scissors to trim his hair.
Remarkably, you could close your eyes and think a Foley sound artist was creating all the effects of stropping, clipping, snipping, and the like, each one perfectly accurate, the timing precisely integrated into the dialogue, yet produced entirely within the narrow compass of Lithgow’s mouth. Whatever you think of the story he tells, Lithgow has found a terrific medium for displaying his acting finesse.
In Act Two, Lithgow again brings personal experiences to bear in introducing his second short story, “Uncle Fred Flits By,” a high British farce from 1935 by P.G. Wodehouse, in which he limns half-a-dozen British characters, including not only a couple of upper-class women but a parrot. Before performing it, the star wisely warns us that, while he’s always thought it “flat-out hilarious,” “when it comes to humor, one man’s rose is another man’s garlic.”
Although the splendidly acted piece does, in fact, inspire considerable laughter, I didn’t exactly laugh my head off, as Lithgow suggested might be the case for some. Which is not to admit his sprightly recital isn’t consistently amusing.
“Uncle Fred Flits By,” theatrical enough to have been dramatized for two TV shows many years ago, centers on Pongo Twistleton and his crackpot Uncle Fred (a.k.a. Lord Ickenham), both of them characters in a number of Wodehouse stories about the latter’s mischievous troublemaking, sort of a benignly comic version of Jim Kendall in "The Haircut." The situations described in “Uncle Fred Flits By” transpire when Uncle Fred induces his uneasy nephew to visit his old suburban property.
After the pair seeks refuge at the house owned by a Mr. Roddis during a storm, Fred finagles his way in by claiming he’s there to clip the parrot’s claws, after which he tells one fib after the other to whomever he encounters. First, there’s Wilberforce Robinson, a “pink chap” who jellies eels for a living and is in love with Julia, a Roddis relation whose parents object to the match. Fred passes himself off to Robinson as Roddis.
He continues the deception, changing his nonplussed nephew’s identity as suits his purposes, when Julia and her parents, the Parkers, arrive. Things get increasingly complicated by the barefaced fabrications he piles up like Pelion on Ossa as he seeks to resolve the Parkers’ objections to Robinson and Julia’s romance.
Lithgow’s delectable performance deploys simple mannerisms, impeccable British accents and voices, and overt mugging, to instantly differentiate one person from another. This is a character actor at the top of his form, his personal likeableness enhancing the appeal his long career has established for Broadway audiences.
John Lithgow has always been one of our most dependable actors, regardless of his medium, but he doesn’t always get the opportunity to use all the weapons in his arsenal. Even though the stories he tells in John Lithgow: Stories by Heart are not precisely cream of the crop they serve ably to show what he’s been hiding.
American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 4