In his one-man show John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, the charming stage legend recounts tales of his youth but at the heart of the production are the dramatic performances of two short stories: a sour, dark yarn from Ring Lardner and a farcical romp from PG Wodehouse.
These were bedtime stories that Lithgow’s father (also an actor) once told him. Lithgow bookends those with personal anecdotes about the struggles of caring for ageing parents as well as nostalgic reflections on his peripatetic, eccentric childhood.
As a showcase for Lithgow’s skills as a physical comedian and bendy-faced mimic, Stories allows him ample room to be a joyful ham. But dramatically, and as a work of cohesive storytelling, the outwardly sentimental show has little in the way of heft. The dramatised stories are neither gripping nor fun enough to turn this passion project into something capable of commanding a Broadway stage.
Lardner’s Haircut permits Lithgow, as a monologuing barber, to precisely mime an elaborate shave and haircut on an unseen customer. The gossipy barber explains how the town jokester/bully got his comeuppance. While Lardner dabbles in moral ambiguities, these get muddied when Lithgow favours comedy—it is unclear who we are meant to laugh at and with. Director Daniel Sullivan’s production fails to guide us. A foreboding shift in the lighting helps with tone, but it arrives too late.
Filled with silly walks, sour expressions, and a parrot (Lithgow’s hand), Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred Flits By, a hijinks-filled takedown of class-conscious Brits, is a more natural fit to Lithgow’s talents.