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Theatre in Review: John Lithgow: Stories by Heart (Roundabout Theatre Company)

John Lithgow. Photo: Joan Marcus

These nights John Lithgow is at home at the American Airlines Theatre, drawing us together and making the auditorium seem half its size with the sheer mastery of his art. (I don't care how many residences the actor may possess; the theatre is his natural abode, and any opportunity to see him in situ is not to be missed.) There's no fireplace on John Lee Beatty's attractively paneled set, but there might as well be, so inviting is Lithgow's manner, so warm his wit, as he spins tales of his family and their collective love of stories.

Stories by Heart is both a benediction pronounced upon his parents -- his father, Arthur, a quixotic, impetuous man of the stage, who dragged his family from one theatre festival to the next, and his mother, Sarah Jane, who stoutly maintained an air of normality, no matter the circumstances -- and a tribute to the fundamental joy of storytelling, without which the theatre would not exist. It's part memoir, part literary reading, and all entertainment.

Whatever dramas were stirring in the Lithgow household -- "My father always seemed to be just one step ahead of ruination; his festivals would fold, or he'd be fired by the board, or he'd quit in a huff" -- Arthur was always a hero to his family. "His children always had a much higher opinion of him than he ever had of himself," Lithgow remarks, adding that one of his father's best traits was his skill at telling bedtime stories, with which he would hold his four children spellbound. Producing the very volume that his father wielded all those years ago -- Tellers of Tales, edited by no less a personage than Somerset Maugham -- he proposes to present two selections, told in his best school-of-Arthur Lithgow manner.

And what stories they are. The first act is mostly taken up with "Haircut," the Ring Lardner gem in which a small-town barber ministers to a new, unfamiliar customer. "I guess I shouldn't ought to be gossipin'," he says, proceeding to offer a corker of a yarn about one of the town cards, a traveling salesman (and improvident husband and father) with a penchant for cruel practical jokes who finally goes too far, setting off a chain of events that ends in murder. In the actor's peerless rendition, we see the town's gallery of characters through the barber's eyes, even as we come to realize that he is a most unreliable narrator. Every detail feels exactly right -- the way he looks around nervously before dropping a bit of scandal, the faintly macabre giggle that accompanies an account of some awful trick, and the pregnant pause that follows the words "it was a plain case of accidental shootin'," in which we see how the teller has become overcome with his own tale.

(Of course, you may wonder what Lithgow's father was thinking, entertaining his children with a story rife with "adultery, misogyny, and murder." But that's another conversation; in any case, the eight-year-old John ate it up. Arthur also exposed the children to pieces by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Colette. One struggles to imagine what the children made of her accounts of moneyed courtesans in Belle Époque Paris, but I feel certain that they hung on every word.)

Even better is the actor's Act II rendition of "Uncle Fred Flits By," a prime bit of P. G. Wodehouse farce, in which Pongo, a member of the Drones Club -- the author's signature watering hole for upper-class second-raters -- is beset by the title character, a loose cannon from the country who appears in London from time to time, staying long enough to leave his nephew mortally embarrassed, out of cash, or in trouble with the law. The story is a signal demonstration of Wodehouse's knack for establishing a simple situation and, by degrees, sending it spinning out of control. Proposing "a pleasant and instructive afternoon" -- words that chill Pongo to the marrow -- Uncle Fred takes him to the former site of one of the family's estates, now a suburban development. They wander around, Uncle Fred "stopping at intervals like a pointing dog and saying that it must have been just about here that he plugged the gardener in the trousers seat with his bow and arrow and that over there he had been sick after his first cigar."

Before long, rain is falling, and they take refuge on the porch of a strange villa. Despite Pongo's urgings, Uncle Fred refuses to leave until the storm is over. Having left his country house that morning, having "by an exercise of iron will" refused his wife's offer of "a woolly muffler," he warns, "If I return with a cold in the head, I shall sink to the level of a fifth-class power. Next time I come to London, it would be with a liver pad and a respirator." Minutes later, they are inside the house, and Uncle Fred, having gleefully taken on an assumed identity, has thoroughly involved himself in a middle-class family's teapot tempest centering on a controversial engagement. Pongo, having been assigned the role of a deaf veterinarian and banished to a corner of the room, can only look on in horror at the uproar that unfolds. Lithgow enlivens each of the narrative's droll caricatures -- none more so than the snobbish matron appalled at the prospect of her daughter marrying a man who jellies eels for a living -- while ensuring we keep track of each element, including the parrot in the corner, the man hidden behind the settee, and the sheer number of bald-faced lies that Uncle Fred tells one and all.

It's somehow appropriate that Lithgow frames these Wodehousian shenanigans with a poignant memory of his father, who, brought low by illness, was retrieved from the edge of a killing depression by his enjoyment of "Uncle Fred Flits By," a story he may have been hearing for the hundredth time. Not that it mattered; as Lithgow so persuasively proposes, stories are as necessary to us as food and drink; our well-being depends on the joy they bring. These are wise words to ponder on a night in this winter of American discontent. Director Daniel Sullivan handles the proceedings with impeccable sensitivity and Kenneth Posner's lighting supports the action with his usual finesse. Stories by Heart is a graceful entertainment and an offering of love. I wouldn't miss it; it offers balm for the soul. -- David Barbour

(12 January 2018)

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