Stories by Lithgow: Less Acting, Please

Autobiographical one-man shows are not my favorite genre, but I had hopes for John Lithgow’s Stories by Heart. This two-act show — which Lithgow has been touring around the country and just brought to Broadway — is partly autobiographical (engaging reminiscences of growing up with his storytelling father), but mostly a showcase for Lithgow to perform two of his favorite stories from childhood. And since one of them, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” is also a favorite of mine, I looked forward to seeing it brought to life on stage.

Not a great idea.  Like many of Lardner’s best comic stories, “Haircut” is a monologue: the one-sided conversation of a small-town barber, rambling on about local doings to a customer from out of town.  Lithgow certainly performs the role well: immersing himself in the character, mimicking his Midwest accent and giggling tics, busily miming all the snipping and shaving that go on while he talks. But the story doesn’t have the impact is does on the page — and I think it’s because Lithgow’s acting, as proficient as it is, actually works against the satire. Lardner typically wrote in the voice of his main character, but always with an ironic distance. The reader grasps what the foolish or naive narrator does not —a sheltered girl, for example, who falls for a big-city sharpie who turns out to be a gigolo in “Some Like Them Cold,”  or, in “Haircut,” a small-town gossip who can’t see the cruelty in the local hijinks he is describing..  It’s important for us to hear, not just the barber’s voice, but also Lardner’s, commenting silently from a cool distance.  In “Haircut” Lardner manages the tone brilliantly to create a sharp satire of small-town values; Lithgow gives us a slice of local color.

In the second act, Lithgow turns to a more straightforward comic story, P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” about a Londoner’s country outing with his dotty uncle. Lithgow gives another bravura performance — portraying a half-dozen characters, with accents and gestures all perfectly rendered. But the story, once again, gets lost amid the busyness onstage; I frankly had trouble following it. Which means, I suppose, that good acting is not always good storytelling.

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