Theater review by Adam Feldman
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—and a relic-like 1939 anthology called Tellers of Tales, edited by W. Somerset Maugham. It was through late-night readings of short stories from this very tome, Lithgow says, that his father (who ran a series of Shakespeare festivals) instilled in his children an appreciation for “the simple power of great writing and spoken words to grab hold of people and carry them away.” Although Stories by Heart winds up providing no such abductions, it is a pleasant way to stay put on a winter’s night.
Lithgow’s show is framed in family history, but no skeletons are exposed, unless you count the love of theater he carries in his bones. Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” in which a country barber tells a customer about a scandal in his small town, takes up most of the first act; Lithgow livens it with deft tonsorial pantomime and a sense of dawning realization on the part of the garrulous narrator. The centerpiece of Act Two is P.G. Wodehouse’s zany “Uncle Fred Flits By,” a veddy British comic tale of embarrassment and family tension. It is a quaint and slender tale—more jam than scone—but Lithgow’s love of sharing it is infectious. Likable though the stories themselves may be, the heart of this show is in their telling.
American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By John Lithgow, Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. With Lithgow. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission. Through March 4.