Stories by Heart

So instantly familiar and likable is John Lithgow that settling in for his "Stories by Heart" is like having a favorite uncle over for the holidays.

With:
With: John Lithgow.

So instantly familiar and likable is John Lithgow, after “3rd Rock From the Sun” and innumerable pics, that settling in for his “Stories by Heart” is like having a favorite uncle over for the holidays. Instead of “A Christmas Carol” he reads — performs, rather — a pair of short stories possessing a strong emotional connection to his past, in an invitation to reappreciate the narrative art. Lithgow is a member of our artistic aristocracy, his technique magical to experience even in such a seemingly unlikely vehicle as this one at the Taper: easy chair, reading lamp, storybook and actor.

He’s not seated for long, because these are told “by heart” and a thesp needs to work the room. P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” charges him with a dozen silly-ass types in a daffy comic adventure that served as a tonic to Lithgow’s storyteller parents in their waning years.

Whether it’s a tonic to you will hinge on your taste for goofy British japery; Lithgow’s reactions may telegraph the humor rather too much. But as he might say in his impeccably plummy Wodehousian tones, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” is another kettle of spoiled fish entirely. This once famous monologue comes out of an early 20th century literary tradition exposing the dark underbelly of Main Street life, a genre taking in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” and Owen and Donald Davis’ chilling (and under-revived) adaptation of “Ethan Frome.”

Here, a genial barber relating local gossip about a mysterious death reveals more about the town’s pervasive currents of cruelty than he intends or realizes. Lithgow substitutes high stool for easy chair to mime the entire procedure: shave and a haircut, two bits of evil.

Where the Wodehouse is leisurely book-on-tape, the Lardner is full-fledged theater, memorably realized. Lithgow’s honed ability with the subtly creepy (see his award winning turns in TV’s “Dexter” and Broadway’s “Sweet Smell of Success”) puts this character right into his wheelhouse, with a hearty laugh simultaneously bespeaking sadism and camaraderie. And Eric Cornwell’s lighting, unexpectedly sensitive for such a simple platform piece, complements a long day’s journey into nightmare.

Stories by Heart

Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles; 739 seats; $70 top

Production: A Center Theater Group presentation of an entertainment in two acts conceived and written by John Lithgow, originally directed by Jack O'Brien. Lighting, Eric Cornwell; production stage manager, Matthew Aaron Stern. Opened, reviewed Jan. 5, 2011; runs through Feb. 13. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: With: John Lithgow.

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