We’ve all seen John Lithgow on the stage or screen at one time or another. As five-time Emmy Award winner in the television series “Third Rock From the Sun." Or as a two-time winner of Broadway’s Tony Award (for “Changing Room" and “Sweet Smell of Success"). And certainly we remember him in the film “The World According to Garp" as Roberta Muldoon, surely one of the clunkiest women ever seen on the big screen.
Well, none of those characters are currently appearing on stage at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Nor is the American diplomat M. Butterfly or the Tony-nominated lead in the Broadway musical “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." Instead, it’s John Lithgow, teller of tales.
On an empty stage dressed with patterned carpets, a small end table and a high-backed upholstered chair, the actor bounces in to pose the questions, “Why do all of us want to hear stories?” and “Why do some of you want to tell them?” And then for the next two hours he proceeds to regale us with the answers.
The one-man show is called “Stories by Heart" and Lithgow begins by telling us about the tales his grandfather used to tell his four children at bedtime. The art of story-telling so captivated his third child, John’s father, Arthur, that Arthur grew up to become the head of a repertory company that endlessly produced Shakespeare’s plays in small towns — in Ohio, of all places!!
The book from which the stories were taken is called “Tellers of Tales” and it has been passed down through the Lithgow generations like a family Bible. In fact, Lithgow tells about his father, morbidly depressed after surgery at 86, falling into a funk and virtually giving up on life. John, as the only one of his siblings then “between engagements,” was deputized to return to his parents’ home to help out. Woefully unequipped to deliver the kind of care his father needed, he floundered for weeks, until one night when he decided to read from the book of tales. At his father’s suggestion, John launched into “Uncle Fred Flits By,” a family favorite by P.G. Wodehouse. And his father laughed at the telling, started to pull himself together, and lived for another 18 months.
With this introduction, Lithgow begins to read the story to the audience. But he soon abandons the book and begins to act out all 10 parts as he tells the very funny adventures of the protagonist, Uncle Fred. In the telling, he prowls the stage, he prances, he does John Cleese-like funny walks, he speaks in veddy propah British accents, he sputters in outrage, he imitates a parrot, and he holds a two-way conversation in sign language, fluttering his hands wildly, with a make-believe man who isn’t really deaf and flutters back uncertainly.
The second act is not quite so felicitous. Bounding onstage again, Lithgow responds to the audience’s applause by segueing into a clapping beat to accompany an old English folk song. “It’s a peppy ditty about adultery and murder,” he tells us by way of introduction. That finished, he tells us of another favorite family tale: “Haircut,” by Ring Lardner. Lardner, who had a “broad streak of gin-soaked cynicism,” according to Lithgow, wrote the story some 80 years ago. It’s a monologue delivered by a small-town barber, telling all the local gossip as he provides a shave and a haircut to an invisible customer. Lithgow’s miming is precise and engaging, but the story is long and while he’s telling it he appears to shave the same customer twice. Or maybe that’s what they did in the 1930’s?
Lithgow, who conceived and wrote “Stories by Heart," lists no director for the production, but when it was premiered at Lincoln Center in New York in 2008 it was directed by Jack O’Brien.
“Stories by Heart" provides a charming visit with John Lithgow and a worthy answer to the question “Why do all of us want to hear stories?” It will continue its run Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 p.m. through Feb. 13. The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., in Los Angeles. Call (213) 628-2772 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.