Who wouldn’t want to be read to by John Lithgow?
The multi-award-winning and much-lauded actor, famed for 3rd Rock From The Sun, Dexter, and most recently The Crown (he played Winston Churchill, brilliantly and originally, in Season 1), is as warm and commanding a stage presence as he is on screen.
When he introduces himself in his solo, Roundabout Theatre Company-mounted Broadway show Stories By Heart, we seem to be in line for a mix of memoir and metafiction. There’s a big chair, a stool, and a table. Intimacy beckons in this show Lithgow has himself written.
“Why do all of us want to hear stories?” he asks us. “Why do some of us want to tell them? Why, for that matter, are all of you even here tonight, huddling in the half-dark with a bunch of total strangers, staring at me for two hours, listening to me talk, talk, talk?”
Well, the answer to that question is that he’s John Lithgow, famous actor, and he will fill a Broadway theater because he’s John Lithgow, famous actor. Lithgow, though, most likely through humility and good grace, doesn’t answer the question in its most literal, obviously commercial terms. And that evasion comes to be telling: It’s not his first.
He talks instead about Arthur Lithgow, his father, “a restless and prolific man of the theater.” He taught and produced Shakespeare plays like Titus Andronicus. “That’s the one where the queen is tricked into eating meat pies made out of her own two dead sons.”
This was an eccentric family and crazy childhood, says Lithgow, and Arthur’s children always had a much higher opinion of their father than he did of himself. This fascinating remark is not elaborated upon: another evasion.
These family tidbits are also red herrings. Lithgow doesn’t really want to talk about himself. Instead, he directs our gaze to a tome called Tellers of Tales, about 80 years old, 1,500 pages long, and containing 100 classic short stories, selected by W. Somerset Maugham.
Inside its pages are stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and “Colette, for God’s sake.”
Lithgow bids we imagine him in 1954 as an “8-year-old boy, all teeth and bones, my hair bleached white by the sun,” as we conjure the image of his father reading Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” to him. Then Lithgow reads that story in the voice of a barber telling a customer “a story that starts out as a light comedy of small town American life that slowly turns into a gruesome tale of adultery, misogyny, and murder.”
There is nothing wrong in telling a story. He reads it beautifully and fluently. But it is quite a long story, and whatever Lithgow’s considerable acting skills, he is on his own inhabiting its entirety. At its end, the lights go down for Act 1.
Act 2 is the retelling of “Uncle Fred Flits By,” by P.G. Wodehouse. Lithgow tells the story as skillfully as the Lardner, and with lots more flutey British inflections. It’s a lighter and dramatically more knockabout proposition.
The autobiographical frame for the second act—after a witty and decorous tucking in of shirt into trousers—is the illness suffered by his father in the summer of 2002, aged 86, its effects also endured by Lithgow’s 84-year-old mother. But this, like the little boy we are asked to imagine in Act 1, is too slight a rhetorical frame for the story.
If you like radio drama, or audio drama (and if you do, listen to Martin Jarvis, “the Olivier of book readers,” as described by Graydon Carter), then you may love Stories By Heart. But you have to focus harder because you are not lying in bed, or driving in a car, listening to a voice. You are in a theater, with all that space demands of both performer and audience.
There is great skill to what Lithgow is attempting, but the exercise is also oddly airless and feels a little pointless. Why has he, why are we, going to all this trouble, merely to recite two stories?
Lithgow also never delivers on his early, stated metafictional aim. We don’t learn anything about the art of storytelling as revealed by stories, or the meaning of storytelling, or the act of it. There are no stories about storytelling. We merely listen to two expertly told short stories. Perhaps the lesson Lithgow intends is supposed to be implicit in the art and execution of those two stories. If so, it isn’t enough. We learn also very little about Lithgow. He wants to tell stories, not tell on himself.
While in his masterful and immaculate retelling of the Lardner and Wodehouse, you are left in no doubt about Lithgow’s love of short stories, you are none the wiser about John Lithgow or his views and insights about the art of the short story by the end. The stories, and stories about stories, in his heart stay resolutely concealed.