John Lithgow is the most personable of performers, and his chatty solo piece “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart” finds him in a mellow mood, sharing loving memories of his family and of the stories they used to read to one another. The two stories he tells in Roundabout Theater Company’s Broadway staging of the show — Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” and “Uncle Fred Flits By,” by P.G. Wodehouse – are charming examples of the ones that his dramatically disposed father recited to his audience of four spellbound children.
“Haircut” is a deceptively folksy yarn related by a loquacious barber to the captive patron in his barber chair. With Lithgow brandishing the invisible scissors, razors, clippers, brushes, combs, and powders of his tonsorial trade, the scandalmongering barber launches into what seems like a genial tale about the late, lamented Jim Kendall. “Jim certainly was a character!” the insensitive barber declares of this brute, who drank his wages, beat his wife and tormented his children. “He was kind of rough, but a good fella at heart.”
By the time Lardner is through with him, the thick-as-a-plank barber has delivered a harrowing, even heartbreaking domestic drama without being aware of the human tragedy behind the juicy gossip. Lithgow loves such characters — big, hearty fellas of good will, but with no insight into other people and absolutely no compassion for others. He makes a brilliant buffoon of the oblivious barber, allowing himself no more than a delighted and slightly demented cackle to let us in on the joke of this “light comedy of small town American life that slowly turns into a gruesome tale of misogyny, adultery, and murder.”
“Uncle Fred Flits By” is a typically droll Wodehouse story about young English twits and their idiotic elders. Adopting a plummy accent, Lithgow holds up all sides of the wacky dialogue between Pongo Twistleton, his fun-loving Uncle Fred, and all the other florid characters who figure in this comic farce. Truthfully, it’s not a typical Broadway audience’s cup of tea. But it takes on richer meaning when Lithgow tells us that it was his father’s favorite story, and the one he read to his parents when they were old and ill. It’s hard not to choke up when he finishes the story and says: “Good night, Mom. Good night, Dad. I hope you feel better.”