Is there another actor breathing who’s as sweetly charming as John Lithgow? Having reduced Lincoln Center auds to laughter and tears last year just by telling them a story, Lithgow reprises his one-man memoir, “Stories By Heart,” and adds a second chapter. “The Haircut,” by Ring Lardner, continues Lithgow’s exploration of storytelling as the unacknowledged tie that binds humanity. Paradoxically darker and more lighthearted than “Uncle Fred Flits By,” the veddy British P.G. Wodehouse yarn that had auds aglow last year, Lardner’s folksy tale toes the line between Midwestern wholesomeness and the streak of cruelty that is also native to the American heartland.
Although both evenings hold up on their own, it’s best to see “Uncle Fred Flits By” first, because it establishes the philosophical context of both pieces and those that will surely follow. “All theater is stories and all actors are storytellers,” announces Lithgow, bounding onto the stage with what appears to be genuine delight at having a captive audience.
Before he actually performs the story (nailing its eccentric characters with acute comic precision) he tells several stories about the story, the most touching one being the role family storytelling played in the Lithgow household. In an elaborate setup that pays off brilliantly at the end, he pays tribute to the grandmother who initiated him into the older folk tradition of reciting epic poetry, and to the thespian father who taught him the skills to keep listeners on the edge of their seat.
That’s a good position to be in when you return for “Haircut,” a droll tale that calls up warm and fuzzy memories for Lithgow, who grew up in Ohio and suffered his first haircut at the hands of a barber much like the one the performer vividly conjures up here.
But first come the stories about the story. Performed (with audience assistance) as a song, an old Oliver Wendell Holmes poem called “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” immediately throws listeners off balance. “I always like to start off with a peppy song about adultery and murder,” the writer-thesp confides, with a beatific smile.
While the narrative serves to initiate us into the Lithgow storytelling tradition (Grandma Lithgow loved this poem and Holmes was actually a family ancestor), Lithgow savors the creepy undertones that offset the wholesome surface charm. Lardner, a poet of the vernacular who was born in Michigan and covered a newspaper beat in Illinois, understood that interplay of light and dark — that peculiarly Midwestern mixture of “kindness and cruelty” — he tells us.
After filling in the background on Lardner, Lithgow sets up his imaginary barber’s chair and seems about ready to tell us the story. But first, we have to go back in time and picture the storyteller as a 12-year-old boy going through the “American rite of passage” of his first haircut at the local barbershop.
By the time Lithgow finally launches into the narrative, he has completely transformed himself into the jolly, loquacious barber who captivates a perfect stranger with a horridly funny story about a customer whose penchant for practical jokes backfires on him. “He certainly was a card,” the barber brays, utterly unmindful of the impact his story has had on the invisible stranger sitting frozen in his invisible barber’s chair — not to mention the rest of us.
That’s the kind of bravura storytelling that leads us to wonder if Lithgow has anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne in that great big family storybook of his.