‘John Lithgow: Stories by Heart’ runs through March 4 at the American Airlines Theatre. 227 W. 42nd St. roundabouttheatre.org.
“Pay attention . . . Listen carefully,” John Lithgow exhorts the audience during “John Lithgow: Stories By Heart,” his new one-man show on Broadway that combines personal anecdotes and commentary with two short stories from the early 20th century.
As much as one can appreciate Lithgow’s elated and elastic theatricality, generous and open spirit and passionate advocacy for the arts, it is not easy to fall in love with the show — or even sit through it without zoning out. Sitting to my right was a young girl who spent most of the show with her head down and eyes closed.
Lithgow asks aloud with bemusement why the audience has bothered to come and hear him recite old stories, which leads him to ponder the healing and restorative power of storytelling. But the truth is that many in the crowd are likely Roundabout Theatre subscribers who showed up simply because Lithgow’s show was made part of the company’s annual season of programming.
Others may have bought tickets on the basis of Lithgow’s expansive stage and screen credits, which has included television, film, classical theater and Broadway musicals. Personally, I will always think of Lithgow first and foremost as the lunatic alien-turned-human Dick Solomon on the ’90s sitcom “Third Rock from the Sun.”
When Lithgow chats with the audience (occasionally acknowledging people in the front row) and talks about his parents and childhood, he is engaging and delightful. But then the fun stops and story time begins.
The selected short stories include Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” (a dark examination of small town life in which a barber recounts how an unruly jokester went too far and got himself killed) and P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” (a farce of mistaken identity in which a young man gets swept up into his unpredictable uncle’s latest stunt).
Whereas “Haircut” is delivered as a monologue, in which Lithgow portrays the barber and mimes giving a shave and hair trimming to an unseen customer, “Uncle Fred Flits By” allows Lithgow to adopt multiple voices and bounce freely around the stage.
Each story is delivered with polish, precision and complete characterization — and yet, each can be hard to follow and turn into a bore. Perhaps the show would work better in a smaller venue — or as an audiobook.