Broadway Theater Review: JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART (Roundabout Theatre Company)

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by Paul Birchall on January 15, 2018

in Theater-New York


Here’s the thing: This solo show written and performed by John Lithgow, the endlessly talented star of more movies, TV shows, and plays than there are stars in the heavens, is downright delightful. Few performers possess the charisma and, frankly, the chops to straddle a stage alone and draw you in so fully – but Lithgow might be that great exception.

You would literally find yourself enthralled if you could be in the audience while he reads the phone book. How much more enjoyable indeed that he actually performs a narrative – and, more pleasingly, it’s a narrative interspersed between the rendering of a pair of short stories that are close to his heart.

Even from his first moments ambling across the stage in a blazer and slacks, addressing the audience almost as though they’re personal friends, Lithgow indicates that the purpose of the show is simply to please. And one would be hard-pressed to find anything more pleasing than his wonderful monologue and storytelling skills. In director Daniel Sullivan’s bewitchingly intimate staging, the audience is addressed as though we’re darling friends, here for an evening of conversation and repartee, which the performer assays with obvious joy.

The play consists mainly of Lithgow’s reminiscences of his beloved Midwestern actor/father – “and it is a great pleasure to be able to say his name on the Broadway stage,” he notes at one point – and how the younger thespian returned home to his native Massachusetts to nurse dad in old age. The rather minor personal anecdotes are wrapped around a rendering of two of the short stories that his father liked best: The first act has a story by Ring Lardner, and in the second, one by P.G. Wodehouse.

It is, admittedly, not a night of theater that is particularly massive in scope. In fact, I can’t help but think that the show would play better in smaller venues, as it has done over the years when Lithgow has taken it on tour around the country. He is such a star that he is actually able to fill the cavernous American Airlines Theatre with sheer personality; on the other hand, the text is missing the heft and the substantiality to be more than trifling. It’s a very nice one-man show, but I’m not sure it rises to the level of Broadway excitement.

The performances of the two stories showcase Lithgow at his most wonderful, most powerful theatrical best; his characters are versatile and his line readings are rich with wit and humor and, on occasion, pathos. If you wanted to sum up the show, I think you’d have to say it’s about kindness: Lithgow’s onstage persona is kindness personified.  He hopes you will enjoy his conversation, and his amiability beams like a lighthouse from the stage through the audience.

photos by Joan Marcus

John Lithgow: Stories by Heart
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theater
227 West 42nd Street
ends on March 4, 2018
for tickets, call 212.719.1300 or visit Roundabout

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