John Lithgow – Stories by Heart: Soothing Bedtime Storytelling, Too Far Away from My Bed.
He says it best quite early on in this kind and compassionate one man show when he exclaims, “what the hell is this?”. I literally was saying that to my fellow theatrejunkie as we took our seats at the American Airlines Theatre, wondering what kind of show will this be, but mainly, why does it exist? So many of these one person shows have an obvious need, a compelling passionate reason that the writer has created this story to tell and feels with all her or her heart that it needs to be told. From the title and the press release, this show, entitled John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, doesn’t seem to contain that compulsive impulse but feels more like it exists merely for the quaint purpose of John Lithgow, a lovely and engaging actor, to have the chance to be on stage for a bit of warm cozy fun with us all. And in many ways, he accomplishes exactly that. Stories by Heart is sweet, engaging, sentimental, and charming, with some laughs and tender smiles mixed in to the batch, but also a bit too easy and dull on the ears, mind, and heart.
Lithgow, who has constructed quite the versatile career, playing on the London and Broadway stage countless times, nominated for six Tony Awards, and winning twice (The Changing Room, Sweet Smell of Success), danced with the New York City Ballet, shot over 40 films, nominated for two Academy Awards (“The World According to Garp”, “Terms of Endearment”), acted on numerous television shows, nominated for 11 Emmy Awards, winning six, most recently for ‘The Crown‘ playing Winston Churchill (quite impressively, I might add), created nine picture books, three children’s albums, written a memoir, and most recently co-created a crossword puzzle for the New York Times. His list of achievements and accolades is impressive and extensive. And for his debut performance with the Roundabout Theatre Company, he has brought this one man show that he has toured the country with, sharing with us the magic and wonder made possible by the art of storytelling. Guiding us through the idea of how it can be a source of engagement, community, rejuvenation, and healing for ourselves and for others.
On a warm and fairly clutter-free stage, designed by John Lee Beatty (Junk), with costumes by Jess Goldstein (Jersey Boys), sound design by Peter Fitzgerald (Sylvia) and lighting by Kenneth Posner (The Father), Lithgow tells us two stories from the actual book that was read by his father to the Lithgow children so many years ago. Stories by Heart is almost more about Lithgow’s love and devotion to his theatrical father than either of the two short stories he wants to share with us. His performance, directed keenly by Daniel Sullivan (The Little Foxes) melts the stories of his father in and around the two tales he aims to tell us: “Haircut” by Ring Lardner and “Uncle Fred Flits By” by PG Wadehouse. Both are delightful and pleasing, with the second being the most fun, while the first being darker than expected. The crowd around me was thoroughly entertained, smiling as if they reencountered that sense of wonder and awe that exists when a child is read a story at bedtime.
Maybe I was that child who was always too sleepy to stay tuned in until the end, or maybe I wasn’t read to enough by my sweet parents, but this lovely performance celebrating the art of acting as well as paying homage to the beauty of storytelling almost put me to sleep with its soothing charm and pleasant wit. Lithgow glows with a comforting personality, sharp wit, and winning smile, but for this theater junkie, I guess I need a more compelling reason to turn up at a Broadway theatre. To be gently rocked into childhood wonderment, I’d rather be told a story like that while comfortably tucked into bed with one light switch away from my dreams. So on that calming note, I bid you good night. Sleep well my children.