John Lithgow's Stories By Heart Theatre Review

Tony.® Emmy.® Golden Globe.® SAG.® Throw in his two Oscar® noms and the world is reminded that actor John Lithgow is no slouch. For over four decades, Lithgow has been working to earn what by now must be a very crowded mantle of awards and accolades, by being one of America’s finest artists in the practice of storytelling. Now he calls upon his vast skills as a performer and orator to bring us the one-man show Stories By Heart. Straight from the humble beginnings at Off Broadway’s Lincoln Center Theater, John Lithgow’s Stories By Heart finds its latest home at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum.

Reading from "Teller of Tales"

The stories of John Lithgow’s heart are equal parts original and borrowed. The evening is constructed as a two act event where Lithgow first spends a while sharing his adoration of the stories of his childhood, followed by his rendition of two stories that are particularly dear to him. “Armed with only an armchair,” and an aged, family copy of Tellers of Tales (a collection of short stories selected and with an Introduction by W. Somerset Maugham), John Lithgow regales the genesis of his path towards becoming a storyteller, tracing it directly to his father. Lithgow celebrates his father’s life, passions, successes and failures as an artist and a storyteller. He credits Arthur Lithgow, at least in part, for his own propensity towards characters that possess a certain “exuberant flamboyance.”

John Lithgow performs "Uncle Fred Flits By"

The first story of the evening, because his father liked it, was P.G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred Flits By. The story, told through the eyes of a Crumpet tells of misadventures involuntarily endured by city-dweller Pongo Twistleton whenever his capricious Uncle Fred comes to visit. During the piece, Lithgow portrays ten different characters and one perpetually winking parrot.

Act Two has our hero Lithgow rousing the audience into a round of clapping, conveniently laying down the beat for his playful rendition of “Eggs and Marrow-Bones”. The tune tells the tale of a cheating wife who plots to blind and murder her husband, only to wind up getting herself killed instead.

John Lithgow performs Ring Lardner's "Haircut"

“Nothing like a little adultery and murder to get the show going,” Lithgow quips.

Indeed, the second act proved to be a bit more subtle and more dark. Lithgow make a complete one-eighty in tone, from English to Americana, from third-person memory to first person present. Lithgow embodied the barber character of Ring Lardner’s Haircut. The story is told entirely by this barber as he muses about Jim Kendall, a town rogue, whose peculiar habits of tasteless jokes and ransom cruelty are of particular amusement to said barber. Throughout the entire piece, Lithgow mimes the action of giving his customer (aka his captive audience) a shave and a haircut. Often, it is unclear exactly what is so affable about the Kendall character that this barber so admires; but we dismiss it to the peculiarlity of small town folk.

John Lithgow’s Stories by Heart is not a living memoir. Lithgow leads the audience down memory lane just long enough to get them to a time and place where these stories were in their prime and when electronic technologies were not yet a wedge in familial intimacy.

John Lithgow's Stories by Heart

Stories By Heart is also an examination of the art of storytelling. What makes a great story and why do we need them? Interestingly enough, I found myself more interested in the personal stories of Lithgow, with his family and parents, more so than I was with the works of the great Wodehouse and Ring Lardner. Nevertheless, Lithgow does not fail to entertain and delight.

Thanks for sharing the memories.

John Lithgow's Stories by Heart runs now through February 13, 2011 at:

The Mark Taper Forum
at the Music Center
Downtown Los Angeles
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Ticket Information: 213-628-2772

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz


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