Thursday, January 11, 2018

Stories By Heart

Last night, I had the pleasure to see John Lithgow's one-man show Stories By Heart. Toward the beginning of the piece, he turned to the audience and said, "So, what the heck is this?"

It's a question many of us were wondering ourselves. The website for the Roundabout Theatre Company calls the play "a singularly intimate evening" containing "equal measures of humor and heart" that "evokes memories of family, explores and expands the limits of the actor's craft, and masterfully conjures a cast of indelible characters from classic short stories by Ring Lardner and PG Wodehouse."

Well, yes, it is all of that, but what does that really mean? It means you're going to hear Lithgow both tell stories and talk about stories, how important they are to him personally, how they shaped his family, and what they mean to the theatre and to humanity in general. As usual, they play becomes more universal the more particular it gets. Rather than musing on human nature, Lithgow spends more time talking about his own family, and in particular about his father, who started a string of Shakespeare festivals across Ohio, but never himself performed on a Broadway stage.

After introducing us to his family and the big book of short stories his father would read to them when Lithgow was a child, he performs Lardner's most famous piece, "Haircut." We get to see his virtuosic acting as Lithgow inhabits the story's famously unreliable narrator and gives a shave and haircut to an invisible barber-shop patron. After an intermission, Lithgow returns to reminiscences about his father, but as an old man rather than a young, energetic parent. He then performs what his family called "the funny one," P.G. Wodehouse's 1935 short story "Uncle Fred Flits By."

I must admit, I'm not a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, but "Uncle Fred Flits By" is legitimately funny, and all the more funny when Lithgow inhabits all of the different characters, including (most outrageously) the parrot. If you get a chance to catch Stories By Heart, it's well worth seeing.