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Stories by Heart

Also see Sharon's review of Hair

Stories by Heart

Stories by Heart is a bit deceiving in its simplicity. John Lithgow begins the one-man show with a minute or so of amiable chat, then poses the rhetorical question, "So, what the hell is this?" It's a good question. The meat of Stories by Heart consists of two short stories (one in each act), which Lithgow acts out for the audience. The story for act one is P.G. Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By," while the second act gives us Ring Lardner's "Haircut." But it's not the stories themselves that you take away from Stories by Heart, but the storytelling.

There's a fairly lengthy—and quite personal—introduction Lithgow gives for the Wodehouse piece, explaining the place that storytelling in general, and this story in particular, has in his heart. It succeeds in making the audience a little wistful for old-fashioned storytelling. Sure, we can read favorite books or watch favorite TV programs pretty much on demand, but how long has it been since any of us snuggled in our pjs and begged mom or dad to read us a favorite story? "And don't just read it, do the voices!" Lithgow reminds us how much of a treat a good story can be, and—after he has re-set the bar at the height at which it rightfully belongs, he then goes about trying to meet it.

He's good. He's very, very good. He is so good, in fact, that in both stories, his telling of the tale overshadows the tale itself. In "Uncle Fred Flits By," Lithgow plays (as he later points out) ten characters and a parrot. As the frantic pace of the story builds—with mistaken identities, lies growing more ridiculous, and a hidden man leaping out from behind a piece of furniture—I marvelled that this may have been the first time I've seen a single-actor farce. The story itself is a piece of fluff, but the acting and storytelling on display are first-rate.

The dichotomy between story and storyteller is even stronger in "Haircut," an odd little piece in which a small town barber, nicknamed Whitey, prattles on while he gives a new customer a shave and haircut. As Lithgow is on stage alone, he mimes both customer and tools—but he's absolutely magnetic. It's hard not be mesmerized by the shave itself—the practiced way in which he goes through the precise motions Whitey has done thousands of times before. Whitey speaks of a former customer, retelling stories (there's that theme again) of the customer's hijinks, and letting loose a corny, creepy giggle that makes you think, if you were sitting in his barber chair, that maybe you wouldn't want him that close to you with a razor. The tale Whitey is telling fails to engage, but Lithgow's portrait of Whitey is where the real story is.

In the initial introduction, when Lithgow is giving us his family's history with storytelling, there are places where the tale gets difficult, and Lithgow's voice shakes with the emotion of the moment—or not. The quavering voice disappears soon after it arrives, and, as this process repeats, it leaves you with the thought that this is not, in fact, Lithgow sharing with the audience a deeply moving emotional moment, but an actor playing a part. To be sure, there's no requirement for an actor to reveal anything personal on the stage, but here, Lithgow purports to be sharing a true moment with us, but it rings a bit false. In a show about the art of the storyteller, it is, paradoxically, a bit disappointing that the storyteller is always on.

Through February 13 at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown L.A. Tickets and info at centertheatregroup.org.

Center Theatre Group -- Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director -- presents John Lithgow in Stories by Heart. Conceived and Written by John Lithgow; Lighting Design Eric Cornwell; Tour Press Representation Jennifer Allen, Mandi Warren, Viewpoint, Inc.; Tour Marketing Representation C Major Marketing, Inc.; Exclusive Domestic Tour Direction Avid Touring Group, Ltd. Produced and Managed by Staci Levine.


Photo: Craig Schwartz


- Sharon Perlmutter






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