Broadway Review: “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart” at Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre

“John Lithgow: Stories By Heart” at Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre (Closed Sunday March 4, 2018)
Adapted and Performed by John Lithgow
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Currently in its Broadway debut, John Lithgow’s “Stories By Heart” first took shape in 2008 at Lincoln Center Theater in a special repertory presentation directed by Jack O’Brien. Then, Mr. Lithgow told one story on each of two nights. Since then he has evolved the play in theaters around the country, produced by Staci Levine, on evenings away from his filming schedule. In this current incarnation, the two stories from a collection of short stories selected by W. Somerset Maugham called “Tellers of Tales” are shared in two acts: the first act features “Haircut, by Ring Lardner; the second act features “Uncle Fred Flits By,” by P.G. Wodehouse.”

“Stories By Heart” is not just the reading of two somewhat obscure short stories. Mr. Lithgow shares with the audience, “I’m also going to tell you some stories about these stories. I’m going to tell you why these two particular stories are important to me, how they connect to my life, and how, over the years, they have helped turn me into a storyteller. /And along the way, I intend to do a little offhand philosophizing about storytelling itself.”

The two short stories seem an odd choice: neither one seems appropriate for children; neither is particularly funny; and neither seems to capture the attention of the audience. What apparently brought the Lithgow children to peals of laughter seems to elude the audience which proffers only occasional laughter and stifled at that. What is spellbinding is Mr. Lithgow’s stories about his father (whom he adored) and how he influenced Lithgow’s life and career in the theatre. The craft of story-telling overshadows the choice of stories and the evening is enjoyable and memorable.

Daniel Sullivan’s direction is competent and allows Mr. Lithgow to tell his stories with effectiveness. John Lee Beatty’s set and Kenneth Posner’s lighting provide space and mood for the actor to capture both the essence of the short stories and the heart of the audience.

John Lithgow is a joy to watch and a joy to listen to. He remains one of our finest actors on stage and on screen. His performance in his “Stories By Heart” is no exception to those expectations. And since “Stories By Heart” is a story within a story paying homage to Lithgow’s father, mother, and three siblings, the result is even more compelling and emotionally charged.