John Lithgow (Daddy’s Home 2, Terms of Endearment) returned to Broadway with his play ‘Stories by Heart’ late last year. The run at the American Airlines Theatre concluded this past weekend. This one-man show focuses on Lithgow’s love of story-telling, which he instilled in him at a young age by his late father. Each act is comprised of a story each: the first with Ring Lardner’s “Haircut”, while the second delves into P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.”
“Haircut” begins innocently enough at a barber shop, with Lithgow portraying a chatty barber speaking to a silent customer. The veteran actor is quite convincing with his gestures and sound effects with the imaginary scissors, barber’s chair, and other tools of the trade. The tale has a bit of a small town feel wherein everyone knows everybody and gossip gets around.
However, the bedtime story takes a darker tone as the barber gives out more details about a character named Jim Kendall, who is interested in the pretty girl of the town. But Julie only has eyes for the young town doctor, which brings out the creepy side of Jim. The outcome for Jim is not a surprise. It’s obvious through his enthusiasm that Lithgow got a kick out of the tale, an oft-reread bedtime story in his younger days.
Still, it’s a story that feels dated and confusing at times. I’m sorry to admit it’s downright dull. The barber’s views on mental disability or illness are particularly unsettling, since today’s society aims to have a more sympathetic and understanding attitude upon the subject. On the evening I attended, some theater goers left during the intermission and did not return for the second act. (That was a mistake!)
The second act is quite hilarious, which has much to do with the story selection – a tale from P.G. Wodehouse, author of the beloved Jeeves and Wooster series. Lithgow’s talent comes out in full force here, as he relates the story of poor Pongo Twistleton and his unpredictable and adventurous Uncle Fred. He varied his English accents and moved across the stage, gliding from one character into the next with such ease. His facial expressions are top notch and his portrayal of the parrot was the most memorable of the set.
“Stories By Heart” is undoubtedly a deeply personal play for Lithgow, as he recounted some anecdotes about his father. That aspect certainly comes through in his performance, but it’s not enough to bolster the two acts. It might have been better to break up the time with a better first act story, or to use two shorter stories in the first act, to better balance out with second. I’d be interested to see how the play continues to evolve if Lithgow goes with adds another year to its nearly ten-year run.
Photo Credit: Image used under license from Freestock.com.