In his autobiographical solo performance Stories by Heart, 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,” about an eccentric man who torments his quaking nephew, Pongo Twistleton, by creating havoc in a snooty English suburban home. The pair barge in under false pretenses and, with their invented identities, blackmail sundry guests with intricately, spontaneously woven yarns — thereby enabling the previously frustrated wedding plans of smitten young lovers.
It's the madcap tone the kids loved, the loopy shape-shifting realities, the pompous brought down to earth by the leveling, satirical power of an Uncle Fred who, with little better to do, made stuff up. In so doing, he exposed the foibles of his society.
In stories lie larger truths. That's the upside of fiction. Fiction also has its downside, in politics, but Lithgow's focus is on the upside, and the memories, the wistful glances back in time.
His father, Arthur Lithgow, was a sullen child (though how his son would know this for certain raises some questions of veracity — perhaps from some relative's description?) who grew into a spirited, extroverted actor and artistic director of a repertory Shakespeare company in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Arthur Lithgow, says his son, told stories with extravagant flair and lived perpetually on the brink of “ruination.” Shakespeare, Wodehouse, Ring Lardner and their fictions lay at the fulcrum of the family's survival.
Years later, when 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.”
He cracked it open, started reading it to his bedridden father and, for the first time since the surgery, heard him chortle with amusement. What transpired after is, perhaps, the best retort to the fatigued argument that the arts are an indulgence. The lifesaving capacities of the arts can be found in after-school programs of neighborhoods in despair, in hospices and prisons. 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?
These are ancient questions that usually re-emerge in high school and university literature classes, but Lithgow brings into sharp relief the visceral purpose of crafting lies for a higher cause.
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.
The centerpiece, however — tenderly accentuated in Eric Cornwell's subtle lighting — is that hardbound book. When Lithgow holds it in a stuffed chair next to an art deco lamp, warning bells go off that we're in for a recitation worthy of Alistair Cooke. Early into the Wodehouse yarn, however — which he is about to enact in its entirety — Lithgow gently closes the book and a dawning light spreads over the stage. What happens next is an act of conjuring. It's more than a very good actor impersonating up to a dozen characters with split-second transitions. It's the idiosyncratic, lucid vision of an author from the 1930s swirling around the stage. The power of stories and the power of theater are quite distinct. One is personal, the other collective. The closing of the book marks the transition from the former to the latter.
Curiously, Lithgow's Act 2, a recitation of 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.
Here, Lithgow invests heavily in the physical detail of the barber's rituals of a shave and a haircut, for a customer (whom we don't see) described as an outsider, which puts us in that barber chair.
Though it sounds like an antitheatrical impulse, it might have been of stronger service to the story had a second actor (such as lighting designer Cornwell, who makes a brief appearance at the top of the act) been positioned in the barber chair. The point that Lithgow says he wants to make — the duality of the lightness and the darkness of a place, of kindness and cruelty — may lie in the reactions of the captive audience. In the story we have to imagine those reactions, but then again, we also have to imagine the delivery of the barber. On the stage, the delivery is manifested, somewhat redundantly, in three powerful dimensions by Lithgow, yet we're asked to imagine the reactions of an invisible listener, and the balance is off-kilter.
This is a work of realism, not whimsy. It recalls Eugene O'Neill's Hughie, set in a hotel lobby and performed on this same stage years ago, with Al Pacino unloading his deranged character's heart to a mute concierge, played by Paul Benedict. Some said it was Benedict who made the performance work with his adroit, muted expressions, speaking not a word.
The touring Broadway revival of Hair (remember when they used to keep the exclamation mark out of the titles of musicals?) is similarly an act of conjuring, of an era, of what it was like for Americans to face mandatory service in a military campaign that became wildly unpopular for any number of reasons. In those days, the bloodshed and homecoming coffins appeared nightly on network news. Those are the marks of an open society.
Diane Paulus stages this powerful, pulsing revival, now at the Pantages. Gerome Ragni and James Rado's book and lyrics are both trivial and affecting — concentrating on the domestic travails of a hippie tribe on the Lower East Side. The men are being sent draft cards and Claude (Paris Remillard) can't muster the strength to burn his. It's a bit like Jonathan Larson's Rent, but with the Vietnam War standing in for AIDS.
This production is about the pulse, the atmosphere, the cavorting, Karole Armitage's leaping choreography, the breaking hearts, Michael MacDonald's era-grabbing costumes, the 'tude, David Truskinoff's terrific onstage band and, of course, the hair.
The tribe cavorts up the aisles, involving the audience. In 1967, the fourth wall in the theater was one in a stream of walls that came tumbling down, and Paulus drives home that point.
A fellow critic said it made him nostalgic for an era he never lived through. Not sure I'd go that far, but the production is unarguably seductive.
STORIES BY HEART | Stories by P.G. WODEHOUSE and RING LARDNER, performed by JOHN LITHGOW | MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m., through Feb. 13 | (213) 628-2772
HAIR | By JAMES RADO, GEROME RAGNI and GALT MacDERMOT | PANTAGES THEATER, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 1 & 6 p.m., through Jan. 23 | (213) 365-3500