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John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

The Tony Award-winning actor's reenactment of a classic P.G. Wodehouse story is absolutely hilarious.

By New York City
John Lithgow in Stories by Heart
(© Joan Marcus)
John Lithgow in Stories by Heart
(© Joan Marcus)
"When it comes to humor, one man's rose is another man's garlic," John Lithgow intones moments before his extravagantly funny re-enactment of P.G. Wodehouse's classic short story "Uncle Fred Flits By" -- which constitutes the second half of John Lithgow: Stories by Heart -- but the likelihood that anyone seated in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater will need a breath mint is slim to none.

Indeed, under Jack O'Brien's inspired direction, the nattily clad Lithgow delivers 45 minutes of nonstop hilarity, deftly impersonating the story's many characters, including the mischievous Lord Ickenham (aka Uncle Fred), the haughty-as-can-be Connie Parker, the "pink chap," and even a family parrot, with just a swift change of stance and facial expression. His delivery is nothing short of masterful and a welcome reminder of the power of the solo performance.

Of course, the Tony Award-winning star has plenty of help from Wodehouse, who crafted a cracklingly funny story, much of which shouldn't be divulged in order not to spoil its clever twists. The basic set-up, which can be revealed, is that the mischievous Lord Ickenham, accompanied by his young and rightfully nervous nephew Pongo, talks his way into a suburban home in order to avoid a sudden rainstorm and soon finds himself claiming to be its owner and dealing with a young couple in love and the woman's snooty parents.

His connection to the Wodehouse piece turns out to be twofold; it was not only one of his favorite stories as a child when recited by his father, the actor and director Arthur Lithgow, but the grown-up John eventually uses it to cheer up an elderly Arthur after a devastating operation. Indeed, his only prop is the same tome that has been in the family for over 50 years.

That often-touching if occasionally maudlin section of the show would have been sufficient prologue. Instead, Lithgow begins the 95-minute, intermissionless evening with a larger exploration to his family's history of storytelling, complete with the recitation of his grandmother's favorite poem "The Wonderful One-hoss Shay," written by Oliver Wendell Holmes (who happens to be Lithgow's distant relative). It's amiable but not altogether compelling.

But laughter is not just the best medicine, it's the perfect antidote to a little bit of long-forgotten boredom. It's a lesson we all should take to heart.


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