The title John Lithgow: Stories By Heart succinctly describes this one-man play starring, who else, John Lithgow, currently running at the Roundabout Theatre Club’s American Airlines Theatre:
After touring the show around the world — starting at Lincoln Center in 2008 — Lithgow re-dons his orator cap for its Broadway debut, regaling the audience with two stories — Ring Lardner’s sinisterly comic “Haircut” in the first act, P.G. Wodehouse’s farcically comic “Uncle Fred Flits By” in the second — that he remembers by heart due to the importance they played in his childhood. Before each, he explains why these yarns reside so close by his heart, touching upon how his thespian father would bring them to life as bedtime tales and how he repaid the favor later in life. Unsurprisingly, Lithgow relays all these stories with his usual endearing heart, filling them with his customary zest for life rooted in introspective human understanding.
Lithgow is an expectedly deft storyteller on the stage, but — at least in Stories By Heart, for which he’s credited as an “adaptor” — less so on the page. His personal recollections are by far the most engaging portions of the evening; though they include a few too many platitudes, Lithgow grounds them in resonant emotionality that palpably means a lot to him. Though he makes clear why Lardner and Wodehouse’s contributions serve such a vital role in his autobiography, attention begins to wane once he launches into their writing. He employs a litany of conventional performative tactics with aplomb to translate the literary page to the theatrical stage — subtly aided by director Daniel Sullivan and his design team, particularly Kenneth Posner’s lighting — but at the end of the day, it’s still just an actor reading from a memorized, periodically-entertaining book that speaks to us much less than it does to him.
To transform these overly-long textual passages, Lithgow could’ve interspersed his biographical material within these narratives instead of around them. Though he may not have wanted to so radically alter the authors’ original work, bouncing back and forth between his words and those of Lardner and Wodehouse would’ve sufficiently varied the often-stagnant means of communication, dramaturgically enlightening connections between these classic stories and his own. Doing so may have conflicted with his intention to exhibit the power of sheer storytelling, but reinforcing his intimate connections throughout could’ve saved the two-hours from feeling like a lopsidedly imbalanced affair.