John Lithgow imbues this feeling into every moment of Stories by Heart, his one-man excursion into elocution that's directed by Jack O’Brien and is playing Sunday and Monday nights through May 25 at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (which is housing the musical Happiness the rest of the week). Lithgow may be a two-time Tony Award winner and a celebrated film and television actor, but at his core he's a loving father and tale turner determined to pass on the formative (short) literature of his upbringing using the resonant voice and malleable personality that have always uniquely characterized him on stage and screen.
Lithgow's current engagement is functionally identical to the one he presented in the same theater last year: a brief yet endlessly whimsical journey through the cherished storybook that saw him through his own formative years, mixed with recollections about the life and family it still summons for him. In fact, he's still taking his previous trip through P.G. Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By" on April 27 and May 4, 11, and 18. But on April 26 and May 3, 10, 17, and 24, he's doing a new (old) piece he’s unearthed, Ring Lardner's 1925 “Haircut.” (On May 25, Lithgow is performing both together.)
“Haircut,” recounted by a barber in the time it takes him to shave and trim a new customer, is as dark, unsettling, and American as the Wodehouse was meringue-light and British. Lardner’s strangely suspenseful intersection of a practical joker, a beautiful woman, a knowing doctor, and a mentally challenged young man is a piercing condemnation of the violent indifference of turn-of-the-20th-century small-town America, commenting on how callous acts become, with time, folklore worthy of being laughed at and lathered off. It takes myriad twists, turns, and diversions, and never lets Whitey, Lithgow, or you off the hook until its classic, disquieting final line.
As such, “Haircut” does not allow Lithgow the same effortless entrée into entertainment that “Uncle Fred Flits By” does; its pleasures are subtler and more cerebral. O’Brien has meticulously helped Lithgow adopt the mien of a period barber: Watch how he painstakingly prepares the straight razor or suds, for example. Or how Whitey occasionally so immerses himself in his own yarn that he forgets he’s in the middle of a job. Or (especially), how Lithgow introduces the vaguest hints of voices and identifying tics into his character - perfect for playing a man who’s not at all skilled at impersonating others.
This latest chapter of Stories by Heart is unquestionably enjoyable, but it’s targeted more to adults than to the families that can safely delight in the timeless comedy of “Uncle Fred Flits By.” (Even the new curtain-raising palate cleanser is twisted: The blithe ballad “Eggs and Marrow-Bones” recounts how a woman blinds and then attempts to drown her husband.) It’s also rather less touching than its counterpart beyond the boundaries of Lardner, its nostalgia-tinged focus more on Lithgow’s Midwest upbringing and personal background than on the parents who bestowed in him the joy of acting.
Regardless, it demonstrates depths and colors of talent that Lithgow, despite the many fine performances he’s given over the years, rarely gets to show. And because of the firmly literary quality of the show and the invention Lithgow and O’Brien both display in bringing it to life, it - like its predecessor - is one of the rare good-for-you shows that isn’t also mustily educational. Like any good parent, Lithgow knows how to put you at ease and let the story itself do all the work. It’s probably not possible to know how many more full-length recitations Lithgow can juggle in his head, but here’s hoping he won’t stop until he’s got enough to populate an entire theatrical bookshelf.
John Lithgow: Stories by Heart