I am a lover of theatre. It’s the art of storytelling; the preferred method conveying truth, provoking laughter, causing joy, challenging preconceived notions; in my humble opinion. Los Angeles, the Mecca of movies and television, is a funny town to live when one feels that way… but I have to say, we have some outrageous opportunities to see the most talented of the talented on stage, other cities simply don’t have. We shouldn’t take it for granted. Frankly, upon arriving in LA behind the wheel of a U-Haul, there should be an obligatory pledge one must recite to take advantage of it, whenever humanly possible.
Are you on board, but confused where to start? You are in luck. John Lithgow is currently performing (also conceived and wrote) his one-man show, Stories By Heart at the Mark Taper Forum. His heart for theatre as a medium for storytelling is obvious. This show is simple and pure. This being something theatre in America has distanced itself from in the rise of spectacle in hopes to draw the youth of today. What a pleasure to see it return.
The talented and engaging Mr. Lithgow delivers his performance on a minimally dressed stage consisting of a chair, end table, lamp, stool, and a couple of carpets. He starts off the evening engaging the audience with endearing stories of his childhood. The art of storytelling was important to the Lithgow family. He shares that he picked up a prized anthology of short stories, dearly loved by his family, a few years back while caring for his ailing father. In effort to lift the spirits of both of his parents, he began reading them the short stories from his youth before bed. The family favorite (and the story he credits the breakthrough in launching his father’s recovery… a testament to the healing powers of storytelling) is the one he shares with the audience, P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”. Mr. Lithgow begins with reading glasses on, sitting in the chair with open book in hand… soon to be up on his feet, gleefully embodying each and every loony character, including the one eyed parrot. Each character is distinct and quirky. He skillfully takes the audience down the silly story road, just as he had with his parents.
After intermission (there’s an intermission?!? More on that later.), Mr. Lithgow leads off with a folky ballad his grandmother used to sing… a seemingly lighthearted tale of adultery and murder, which sets the tone for the second story of the eve, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut”. Mr. Lithgow delivered this American drama as a Midwest barber, gossiping away in his shop. A story illuminating the dark side of human nature, it provides a sharp contrast to the previous story of the first act. A skillfully performed, compelling piece of storytelling.
Here’s the zinger. It would be a stretch to say this is a successful evening of theatre. Each component in and of themselves stands. Each component is compelling and worthy of repeating. As an evening of theatre, of storytelling… as an event to witness and participate in as an audience with John Lithgow at the helm, it falls slightly short. This may sound petty, but it’s just too long. Even the great John Lithgow can’t be expected to (nor should he attempt) hold the attention of the masses for 2 ½ hours. He admits the show was at one point was just “Uncle Fred…” with the set up of stories from his youth. But he sensed that the audience wanted more. I have no doubt about this. Leave them wanting more Mr. Lithgow. Give us your heartfelt stories of your family from days past and crack us up with the hilarity of “Uncle Fred…” or present a darker show with intimate experiences from your past and present “Haircut”. But there is a flaw in the show as a whole, as it stands. Hardly a fatal flaw… I couldn’t look myself in the mirror after advising skipping this show.
John Lithgow one of the superb actors of the time. He is a true talent. A lovely, and warm man. Don’t miss the opportunity to see a little old-fashioned, simple storytelling from the heart. Then challenge yourself to ponder modern day storytelling in the theatre… and what may be the way, the better way, and the best way to tell those stories. Take your pals and have a chat afterwards. Now that’s a rewarding evening of theatre, if I’ve ever heard of one.
Mark Taper Forum
135 North Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Ends Feb. 13