by Michael Bracken
Conviction. A belief in the moment that’s so strong you can’t resist its power, that’s the magic of John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, his homage to the art of storytelling. It’s making its Broadway debut at the American Airlines Theatre, after nine years of fine-tuning at Lincoln Center and throughout the country.
What a gift! In each of two acts, Lithgow, winner of two Tony and six Emmy Awards, takes us back to his childhood in Ohio, where his father mounted every work in Shakespeare’s theatrical canon. But that’s only one reason theater is in Lithgow’s blood. Also important, he shows and tells us, was his father’s regular habit of reading – and enacting – short stories to young John and his siblings.
One particular tome played the leading role in Lithgow senior’s repertoire, as it does in this production: Teller of Tales, a collection of stories by writers like Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse. In Act I, after sharing a slice of family life, Lithgow gives us Lardner’s “Haircut,” a tale told by a garrulous barber in a midwestern village to a customer from out of town. It consists of one long monologue by the barber.
And with a quick shake of an imaginary barber’s cape, Lithgow is the barber, preparing a hot towel, sharpening his razor, shaving his customer’s face, all in thin air, without props. His movements are so precise and his concentration so unflinching that we can’t help but believe there is a towel, a leather strap, a razor, and a flesh and blood customer.
He provides his own sound effects. He employs a small clicker in one hand to simulate the clipping of the scissors. And he endows his barber with an inane high-pitched giggle that would grate in real life but suits the shallow haircutter beautifully.
But it’s not just physical prowess that makes Lithgow’s performance beguiling. Pacing and emotional truth inform his creation of a small-minded barber chronicling the exploits of the town clown, whose practical jokes at the expense of others end up costing him dearly.
Act II has Lithgow go back to both his childhood and the year 2002, when he parent-sat his father, whose health was failing and whose mood was dire. After finding Teller of Tales in his father’s bookcase, he read him “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G. Wodehouse, chronicler of the fictional foibles of the British upper crust. To his delight, his dad laughed a little at first and a lot as Lithgow went on. Lithgow credits the story with raising his father from the depths of depression and bettering the quality of his last year and a half of life.
“Uncle Fred” is delightful fluff of the highest order. And Lithgow immerses himself in Wodehouse’s outrageous characters with relish. He gets to show off his dexterity with the English accents of no less than ten Brits of various classes, sexes, and lineage.
Uncle Fred, also known as Lord Ickenham, frequently gets bored at Ickenham Hall, his country estate, and then descends upon London and his nephew Pongo, whom he drags into his outlandish escapades.
This visit finds Fred and Pongo in the London suburb of Mitching Hill, when it starts to rain. Fred finagles his (and Pongo’s) way into a nearby house, where the maid, heading out the door for her afternoon off, leaves them alone.
When a young man, known only as the “pink chap” rings and asks for Mr. Roddis, Fred claims that identity, and soon he is mediating a discussion among the pink chap, his intended, and her parents, who are opposed to the proposed match. None of them know what the real Mr. Roddis looks like.
Lithgow is hilarious as all four participants in the foray and as Fred, stirring the pot. Each has their own voice, facial expressions, tics, and body language. All are uproariously exaggerated, and Lithgow has a ball savoring their rollicking reality.
So do we.
Through March 4th at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street). https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/ . Two hours with one intermission.
Photos: Joan Marcus