Not that Stories by Heart, which John Lithgow is performing Sunday and Monday nights at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is Grand Culture on par with the opera, ballet, and drama usually filling the institution's bills. This 90-minute solo outing is so homespun that were it not for the two-time Tony-winning actor at its center, it would be all but impossible to identify as theatre at all.
Yet the evening's two lengthy recitations are more than just parlor tricks of prodigious memorization. As lovingly directed by Jack O'Brien, they become vivid evocations of times, places, and ideals long vanished, of the skill of simple storytelling so often sublimated today to spectacle and artifice. And as linked by the supple waves of Lithgow's mock-haughty, mellifluous voice and his interjections about their relationship to his own personal history, these featherweight writings even become the engaging memoirs of an always-theatrical family.
With "The Deacon's Masterpiece" (or "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay"), Lithgow relates Oliver Wendell Holmes's dashingly lyrical look at a perfectly constructed carriage that fell apart on the 100th anniversary of its construction. While his performance is certainly a lesson in pacing, phrasing, and communicating antiquated vocabulary (when did you last use the words "thoroughbrace" and "whippletree" in conversation?), it's also a lovely hug of a tribute to his grandmother, who was brought up to learn and retain such poems, and introduced him to this one.
P.G. Wodehouse's 1935 "Uncle Fred Flits By" is even more personal, as it served as both cherished bedtime reading for Lithgow when he was young and as vital home therapy decades later when his elderly father was stalling in recovering from an operation. Lithgow credits Wodehouse's tale of dandy deception with turning around his father's health extending his life - no small achievement for an elegant piece of piffle about the loony adventures of two-bit con artist Frederick Twistleton and his tag-along nephew Pongo.
For both Lithgow and his father, who was himself an accomplished actor and producer, Uncle Fred's delirious deceptions tie into deeper questions of what any art means to those who love it, and why pretending to be someone else can sometimes reveal the soul instead of hiding it. Enjoyable as "Uncle Fred" is, especially as ornamented by Lithgow's tongue-clickingly precise diction and one-man tableaux of the easily confusable upper-crust characters, the actor's descriptions of his father's triumphs and tragedies on and offstage are every bit as moving and informative as those that preceded him by decades.
This is an enormous part of what makes this such a touching example of non-theatre theatre. The twists, turns, and sly subversions that wiggle into this beguiling fireside chat of a play (complete with easy chair, end table, and lamp) are equivalent with some of the better non-musical offerings this season. (Including the show currently sharing the Newhouse, Paul Rudnick's The New Century, which - it must be said - is quite a bit funnier but less endearing.) But it's the strength of the message that what we read or see can never compare to what we create ourselves that lets Stories by Heart keep your heart firmly in its grip from start to finish.
John Lithgow: Stories by Heart