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Theater review: 'Stories by Heart' at the Mark Taper Forum

January 6, 2011 |  4:30 pm

Lithgow 3

For a big man with a plummy voice, John Lithgow sure has a marvelous way of transforming himself into characters of every shape and size. He doesn’t so much disappear into his roles as subtly alter the thespian cloud he travels in. With a few turns of his diction dial and a shift of the lever controlling his posture, he manages to convince his audience that he has transmogrified into another entity entirely — a credit both to the pliancy of his instrument and to the discreet intelligence masterminding the wonderful ruse.
 
In “Stories by Heart,” his solo homage to the art of storytelling, which opened Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum, he gets the chance to show off his protean gifts.  A cast of one becomes a multitudinous ensemble as he inhabits two classic stories from a dusty anthology that filled his childhood with all the excitement and wonder that today’s kids obtain from 3-D blockbusters without having to lift an imaginative finger.
 
A little creative exertion apparently goes a long way. But Lithgow’s purpose is more emotional than educational. The context of revisiting P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” and Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” is uniquely personal. Lithgow comes across the Wodehouse tale while caring for his ailing father, stage veteran Arthur Lithgow, whose health and good humor were in steep decline after a series of medical interventions near the end of his life.

Lithgow 2To raise the spirits of both his parents, Lithgow read them bedtime tales, just as his dad used to do for him and his siblings. Wodehouse’s comic spree, part of his mischief-loving Uncle Fred series, was a family favorite, and Lithgow enacts the work with a kind of virtuosic affection — a tribute both to the ever-popular English writer and to his own father, whose long and productive career in the theater was a testament to his belief in the humanizing power of storytelling.

Switching British accents with farcical speed, sneaking in tidbits of physical comedy, producing sound effects with a scrape of his suit jacket or a surreptitious gurgle, Lithgow animates Wodehouse’s world like an animation machine. Uncle Fred’s boundless audacity is expertly contrasted with his nephew’s red-faced timidity. The story’s parrot even makes a memorable cameo through the actor’s fixed, one-eyed stare.
  
The second act begins with a rhyming folk ballad of the kind Lithgow’s grandmother used to recite, a peppy little yarn about adultery and murder that prepares us for Lardner’s chilling “Haircut,” a small-town revenge tale told in the manner of a harmless barber shop anecdote. Lithgow excels at revealing the dark side of the sterling American character, and he draws out all the genial creepiness of this saga about a Midwestern jokester who’s finally denied having the last laugh.

Both stories are meant to be read rather than performed, but their flamboyant characters and witty language invite theatricalization. Still, “Stories by Heart” has the feeling of a special event, and as such seems a bit overextended.  Lithgow, who first performed the show at Lincoln Center in 2008, acknowledges that he added the second act after sensing that his audience was hungry for more. But perhaps that hunger had less do with duration than with the prosy nature of the experience.

Seeing this Emmy- and Tony-winning actor strut his versatile stuff, I couldn’t help wishing that the Taper had found a new play to serve his talent. What a boon to a playwright that would have been, and what a generous renewal of Lithgow's craft.
 
Don’t get me wrong: Lithgow is excellent company, and his personal story is compactly conveyed with genuine poignancy. (Not for nothing is he a bestselling children’s book author.) “Stories by Heart” also serves as a reminder in this age of increasingly gargantuan spectacles that simplicity can more than hold its own onstage. But the best way of honoring storytelling in the theater is with a fresh drama.

-- Charles McNulty

charles.mcnulthy@latimes.com

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

“Stories by Heart,” Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 13. $20 to $70 (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/Stories. Running time:  2 hours, 20 minutes.

Photos: Top and bottom: John Lithgow in "Stories by Heart." Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times

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