How well we know John Lithgow’s satisfying face, his agreeable body: The eyes narrowed quizzically above a smile slimmed by secrets (or is it menace?); the frame softly hulking, lacking intimidation. It has been so familiar it deserves landmark cultural status. Who else has a resume as varied as this, from the transexual Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp and Debra Winger’s milquetoast lover in Terms of Endearment, the crazed preacher daddy of Footloose, and then on to memorable TV roles in 3rd Rock From the Sun and Dexter, not to mention (pace Gary Oldman) his BAFTA and Emmy winning, Golden Globe-nominated turn as Winston Churchill in The Crown. And I haven’t even mentioned the really bad guys he’s played.
During that time he’s also earned six Tony nominations and won twice, also across an astonishing range of roles, from Chicago newspaper editor Walter Burns in The Front Page to a French diplomat seduced by a Chinese opera star in the original M. Butterfly. I was probably the only person in Lithgow’s audience the other night who reviewed his “Mountain” McClintock in the out-of-town tryout of Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight (possibly the only one to have seen it at all, since it lasted on Broadway just long enough to earn him another Tony nod before shuttering after three performances).
And now here he is, alone on the stage of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre, doing his own Stories By Heart. The touring solo show is a great theatrical tradition, a meal ticket for actors “between roles,” as they say: think of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! and Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, both exhaustively toured and showcased on Broadway. Lithgow himself tried his hand earlier in his career with Kaufman At Large, about the playwright and Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman that was not kindly received (“Kaufman writ small,” the Times opined).
Stories By Heart takes a different tack from the other shows: it’s not a biographical portrait. Or perhaps it is, though not of the authors of the two stories we will see performed over the compact evening. Lithgow opens with a lively sketch of his tight-knit family: older siblings David and Robin on one side of him and baby sister Sarah Jane on the other; his mother, Sarah, the structural support system; his English-teacher father, Arthur, a peripatetic Shakes-pe-herian and founder of summer festivals throughout the Midwest dedicated to the Bard of Avon. (Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival survives today, a tribute). They were frequently on the road, or on the run, depending on circumstances.
“He did all these things a long, long way away from any Broadway theater, but in his lifetime Arthur Lithgow worked miracles,” Lithgow tells us, his voice light with affection. “His children always had a much higher opinion of him than he ever had of himself.”
What kept them together was the stories Father read at bedtime, mostly drawn from a thick volume Lithgow proudly displays, titled Tellers of Tales, a 1,500-page compendium from the late ’30s. “We would pick the stories and he would read them out loud, performing all the parts full-out. When I hold it in my hands now, my father comes back: in his khaki pants and his short-sleeved seersucker shirts. His plummy voice. His husky smell.”
First up is “Haircut,” a “deliciously nasty little story written in the 1920’s by a gin-swilling cynic named Ring Lardner,” he says. The stage is enclosed by imposing oak-like paneling. There are a wingback chair, a stool, and a small table bearing a glass of water. With little more than his violinistic arms and winsomely delicate fingers, Lithgow establishes the barber’s chair, its foot pedal to adjust the height and head support to hold the invisible customer; the shaving cup and its foaming lather, the leather strop and blade, and, finally the barber’s shears, snipping away as the gentleman gets an earful far more than his two bits paid for. The story begins as a Homer Priceian survey of the town’s colorful characters but soon twists into an unsavory tale of small-mindedness, cruelty and murder, told by Lithgow’s barber with a jester’s unsettling, high-pitched giggle. It’s unnerving and not a little creepy.
Lithgow acknowledges as much after the intermission, when the lights come back up and he says, “You’d think that a dark story like that was pretty tough going for an eight-year-old boy, wouldn’t you? But no! I thought it was great!”
And then, after more personal confidences about caring for his dying father, he launched into something altogether different: P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” It begins in a men’s club, where the narrator points his luncheon guest to the appearance in the doorway of Pongo, a distressed young man in tweeds: “If he had a mind, there was something on it,” the Colonel says, and he looked “like a character out of a Greek tragedy pursued by the Fates.”
The cause of poor Pongo’s crisis is the impending visit of his Uncle Fred, a shameless schnorrer, ingenious adventurer and human landmine in the rutted field of social contracts. “Uncle Fred Flits By” is the tale of their adventures, populated by an astonishing cast of characters who might, in Lithgow’s memorably variegated facial exaggerations, have leapt from the pages not of Tellers of Tales but from, instead, a Dr. Seuss anthology in which all the characters, while distinct, have the pinched aspect of raisins. Dour raisins, happy raisins, mortified raisins, ecstatic raisins. They all are exceedingly good company.
Daniel Sullivan directed this long-developing show, and it’s fleet. But Lithgow isn’t well served by the design. Kenneth Posner’s lighting is harsh and unforgiving, and John Lee Beatty’s set is clean but oddly monumentalist, overpowering a necessarily intimate exchange between performer and audience. As someone who loves the short story form, I know one reader’s Wodehouse is another’s I.L. Peretz, one reader’s Cheever is another’s Pynchon. Lithgow is deeply impressive in sharing two wildly different examples. I wasn’t sold on the first, but he had me at Pongo.