“What the hell is this?” John Lithgow asks the audience at the top of his new one-man show, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, going so far as to interrupt a healthy dose of entrance applause. He goes on: “I mean, look at you! You all look so eager and hopeful. What exactly are you hoping for? What do you hope will happen here tonight? What are you looking for? What do you want?”
On behalf of the audience, let me attempt to provide an answer: Mr. Lithgow, the majority of the audience is made up of Roundabout Theatre Company subscribers, and as you know, your show was programmed into the company’s annual Broadway season. They didn’t really choose to see your show. Roundabout chose it for them. Others may have purchased tickets on the basis of your wide-ranging credits as a screen and stage actor. I, personally, am a theater critic. I didn’t purchase a ticket, but my expectations and hopes regarding your show should not be all that different from the rest of the audience. We’d like you to provide us with an enjoyable, entertaining, meaningful evening or afternoon. We want our time and money to have been well spent.
For the first 10 minutes or so, Lithgow muses about the power of storytelling and reminisces about how his father (who managed Shakespeare festivals in the Midwest) would read to him and his siblings from an antiquated anthology of short stories. At this point, the audience is engaged by Lithgow’s warm enthusiasm, openness, sense of humor and theatrical nature. If Lithgow were to spend the next two hours simply talking to us in this manner, I don’t think there would be many complaints. He could also go into how he started out as an actor (as he did in his fine book Drama: An Actor’s Education) or talk about his most recent acting gigs (such as playing Winston Churchill on the Netflix series The Crown).
But then Lithgow reveals that the bulk of his show will in fact consist of him enacting two early 20th-century short stories: Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” (for act one) followed by P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” (for act two), each of which can be found in the aforementioned anthology.
Under the direction of Daniel Sullivan (who took over at some point from Jack O’Brien, who oversaw an earlier incarnation of the show produced by Lincoln Center Theater), Lithgow delivers two minutely detailed performances that are dramatically ineffective in the context of his one-man show. In “Haircut,” which is a first-person narrative, he portrays a lowly, lonely small-town barber recounting to an unseen customer a rowdy local favorite who lost his life when he took his pranking too far. In “Uncle Fred Flits By,” a multi-character farce with third-person narration, Lithgow gets to use more of the stage and more of his energy.
Perhaps some of the crowd is able to follow Lithgow’s recitation of each text and is perhaps even entranced by it. Others (like the young girl sitting in my row) may nod off. I tried to stay engaged throughout but found this to be a chore. The show probably would have worked better in a smaller venue, in which the audience felt less distance between itself and Lithgow. Or, perhaps each person could have received copies of each story and read along.
Personally, I would have preferred to stream or download an audio version of each story, as performed by Lithgow, and listen to it on my iPhone on my own time. Listening to the audio alone would remove the issue of what to do with Lithgow on an empty stage, which distracts from the text. At the top of the show, Lithgow asked, “What the hell is this?” The answer: an audio book being performed live.