John Lithgow clutches a book of stories, just about the only prop he uses. It's a musty, thick old book that, if we're to believe him, has been in his family for generations. It's the book, he says, that his parents read from in order to entertain him and his three siblings. He recalls the family favorite the "funny one" P.G. Wodehouse's story "Uncle Fred Flits By." Years later, when his father, Arthur Lithgow, was in his 80s, he had to endure abdominal surgery that broke the spirit of this very spirited man. John was the only actor among his siblings, and therefore the only child who was unemployed and "available" to care for his aging parents a task that sent him nightly into paroxysms of sobbing, he says. Until he discovered on the shelf of their home a musty old book of stories containing "Uncle Fred Flits By." The snorts of laughter from his dad, and his subsequent rehabilitation, is the best retort to the fatigued argument that the arts are an indulgence. The arts have, in their way, parallel capacities to an emergency ward in a hospital. And that's one answer to the questions Lithgow posits at the start of his show: Why do people tell stories? And why do people listen to them? As a persona, Lithgow is beyond amiable. He has a physical dexterity and a far-flung vocal range that can impersonate anything from the piping of Englishwomen to a Midwestern barber's gravelly drawl. Curiously, Lithgow's Act 2, a recitation of Ring Lardner's "The Haircut," translates to the stage with more of a thud, perhaps because the vehicle the monologue of a deranged barber in a deranged Midwestern town doesn't allow the actor the opportunity to vault from one character to the next. Here, Lithgow aims to home in on a gossipy barber's explanation for the death of his friend. Onstage, the point of lightness and depravity coexisting gets made in full within 15 minutes, yet the story lasts far longer. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 13. (213) 628-2772.
Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 & 6:30 p.m. Starts: Jan. 5. Continues through Feb. 13, 2011