Review Roundup: Critics Weigh-In on John Lithgow in STORIES BY HEART
Virtuosity and imagination combine in one utterly unique event, as Tony and Emmy Award winner John Lithgow creates a singularly intimate evening.
With equal measures of humor and heart, he evokes memories of family, explores and expands the limits of the actor's craft, and masterfully conjures a cast of indelible characters from classic short stories by Ring Lardner and P. G. Wodehouse. Lithgow elevates the magic of storytelling to masterful new heights.
John Lithgow: Stories By Heart began preview performances on December 21, 2017 and opens officially on Thursday, January 11, 2018. This is a limited engagement through Sunday, March 4, 2018 at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway (227 West 42nd Street).
Let's see what the critics had to say!
Jesse Green, The New York Times: Wodehouse isn't as easy to read aloud as Lardner, but Mr. Lithgow takes a great deal of pleasure in mapping sentences whose verbs are barely in earshot of their subjects. And he revels in Dadaist assemblages like this one: "I know if someone came to me and said 'Jelly this eel!' I should be nonplused." Yet the Wodehouse, for all its airy wit, is not about nothing: It too is a story of deception, only in this case the kind that delivers delicious comeuppance to the puffed-up and slow-witted. And what could feel more current, more worthwhile, in the first cold days of 2018 than that? The imagination, Mr. Lithgow wants us to know, is a powerful weapon if we don't let it go dull.
Matt Windman, amNY: As much as one can appreciate Lithgow's elated and elastic theatricality, generous and open spirit and passionate advocacy for the arts, it is not easy to fall in love with the show - or even sit through it without zoning out. Sitting to my right was a young girl who spent most of the show with her head down and eyes closed.
Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: Lithgow's show is framed in family history, but no skeletons are exposed, unless you count the love of theater he carries in his bones. Ring Lardner's "Haircut," in which a country barber tells a customer about a scandal in his small town, takes up most of the first act; Lithgow livens it with deft tonsorial pantomime and a sense of dawning realization on the part of the garrulous narrator. The centerpiece of Act Two is P.G. Wodehouse's zany "Uncle Fred Flits By," a veddy British comic tale of embarrassment and family tension. It is a quaint and slender tale-more jam than scone-but Lithgow's love of sharing it is infectious. Likable though the stories themselves may be, the heart of this show is in their telling.
Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: Daniel Sullivan directed this long-developing show, and it's fleet. But Lithgow isn't well served by the design. Kenneth Posner's lighting is harsh and unforgiving, and John Lee Beatty's set is clean but oddly monumentalist, overpowering a necessarily intimate exchange between performer and audience. As someone who loves the short story form, I know one reader's Wodehouse is another's I.L. Peretz, one reader's Cheever is another's Pynchon. Lithgow is deeply impressive in sharing two wildly different examples. I wasn't sold on the first, but he had me at Pongo.
Thom Geier, TheWrap: The wonderful Emmy-winning actor has been touring versions of the show - sometimes one act, sometimes two - for about a decade now. And he's gotten it to a good-as-it's-gonna-get place. But this modest celebration of the joys of storytelling, which opened Thursday, is at its heart a chamber piece that feels woefully out of place in a Broadway theater.
David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly: This is ultimately a basic piece of theater that never really digs below its cozy, slightly drab surface. Each of the play's two acts is constructed as follows: one-third background from Lithgow, reminiscing on his childhood or the power of storytelling, and two-thirds his solo performance of a classic short story. The production is strikingly bare-bones - as if you've walked into a dusty study that's just been cleared out for a house move, with only a chair, small desk, and thick ol' storybook remaining. There is no flourish here. All eyes are meant to be on Lithgow as he loosely moves about, all ears on the tales he spins with vigor.
Joe Dziemianowicz, The Daily News: Still, there's something to his scripted quip about being memorable. Lithgow's show is personal and has heart. But it also has a weak pulse. Long story short: The two-hour piece, directed for the Roundabout by Daniel Sullivan, makes for a slim evening.
Sara Holdren, Vulture: Despite Lithgow's tendency to wax Hallmark card-ish when he's talking about his stories rather than telling them, he's a sensitive enough performer to know when to move on from the personal - to feel when his audience needs a laugh and a lift. And when he dives into the words and worlds of Lardner and Wodehouse, Stories by Heart is pure entertainment of the most ancient and appealing kind. In his current sojourn in New York City, Lithgow seems to have taken the words of the immortal Uncle Fred as his touchstone: "On these visits of mine to the metropolis, my boy, I make it my aim, if possible, to spread sweetness and light."
Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: If you like radio drama, or audio drama (and if you do, listen to Martin Jarvis, "the Olivier of book readers," as described by Graydon Carter), then you may love Stories By Heart. But you have to focus harder because you are not lying in bed, or driving in a car, listening to a voice. You are in a theater, with all that space demands of both performer and audience.
Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the piece has been given an expert production, enhanced by John Lee Beatty's homey, wood-paneled set featuring little more than a comfortable easy chair, a small table and a stool. Kenneth Posner's warm lighting - which keeps the house lights up for the first several minutes, as if to emphasize our collective involvement in the act of storytelling - strives to intensify the intimacy of the proceedings.
Peter Marks, The Washington Post: In the delightful "John Lithgow: Stories by Heart," an actor known for great intelligence and range devotes two hours on a Broadway stage to advancing that reputation. Enacting with consummate skill and physical grace a pair of short stories by Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse, Lithgow accomplishes the mission in handy fashion.
Alexis Soloski, The Guardian: One of the finest things about Lithgow is how unclassifiable he is, how idiosyncratic. Another pale giant with a rabbit face and a plum pudding voice might have become a niche performer, but he has always moved gracefully among classics and schlock, leads and character roles, charmers and drips and villains and extraterrestrials. So it is both a pleasure and a disappointment to find him doing something as aggressively ordinary as this one-man show, which Lithgow first developed a decade ago, alternating family reminiscences with good-natured performances of two short stories, Ring Lardner's Haircut and PG Wodehouse's Uncle Fred Flits By.
Nicole Serratore, The Stage: As a showcase for Lithgow's skills as a physical comedian and bendy-faced mimic, Stories allows him ample room to be a joyful ham. But dramatically, and as a work of cohesive storytelling, the outwardly sentimental show has little in the way of heft. The dramatised stories are neither gripping nor fun enough to turn this passion project into something capable of commanding a Broadway stage.
David Tereschuck, Huffington Post: In full command even before the Wodehouse story begins, Lithgow poses to the audience another, narrower question than his overall "why stories" query from the show's opening. It concerns this story itself, and just how it affected Lithgow's own family, in particular his father, the mid-west theater impresario Arthur Lithgow, at a critical point late in his life. By the end of his son's wacky, rhapsodic performance ... all of us in the audience have an answer to his question. For each of us it might be different ... but then, that's how stories are.
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Truthfully, it's not a typical Broadway audience's cup of tea. But it takes on richer meaning when Lithgow tells us that it was his father's favorite story, and the one he read to his parents when they were old and ill. It's hard not to choke up when he finishes the story and says: "Good night, Mom. Good night, Dad. I hope you feel better."
Max McGuinness, Financial Times: "Why do all of us want to hear stories? Why do some of us want to tell them?" asks John Lithgow at the beginning of this new one-man show. Looking rather more sprightly than he does playing Winston Churchill in Netflix's The Crown, the septuagenarian actor frames his answer around two short stories by Ring Lardner and PG Wodehouse, interspersed with reminiscences about growing up in a theatrical family.
Roma Torre, NY1: John Lithgow is a wonderful actor and clearly excels in the art of storytelling. It is, as the title of his one-man show suggests, something close to his heart. But unfortunately, his labor of love requires an intimate setting. And while there's nothing wrong with the storytelling, on that big Broadway stage, it's the stories themselves that get a little lost in translation.
Barbara Schuler, Newsday: Coming onstage to more-than-typical entrance applause, the versatile Emmy (six) and Tony (two) winner, who has portrayed everyone from Winston Churchill in "The Crown" to an alien in "3rd Rock from the Sun," clutches a thick, well-worn book. "It's my only prop," he notes, gingerly setting the 1,500-page 1939 anthology of short stories put together by W. Somerset Maugham on a table stage left. It's the book his father, Arthur, who ran a Shakespeare festival in Ohio, regularly read from to entertain young John and his three siblings.