An armchair, end table, rug — there’s little else onstage, but John Lithgow doesn’t need more than that (or any co-stars) to create worlds of laughter and suspense in his one-man show, “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart,” which opens at the American Airlines Theater on Thursday, Jan. 11, and runs through March 4.
The acclaimed actor has gotten attention for his recent work in TV (playing Winston Churchill in the Netflix hit “The Crown”) and film (Rebel Wilson’s dad in “Pitch Perfect 3”), but this stage show is clearly a labor of love. He created it 10 years ago and, after touring the country, has brought it to Broadway, where he shares family memories and reads bedtime stories.
That’s right. The show is an homage to storytelling, with only one prop — a weathered old volume of short stories, the very one his father read from when Lithgow, 72, was a boy. During the evening he recites (and acts out) two of his favorites — Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” about a gossipy barber in a boring (well, maybe not-so-boring) small town, and “Uncle Fred Flits By,” a tale of lovable oddballs by P.G. Wodehouse.
How’d you come up with this idea — just you, a stage and a storybook?
It started the moment I describe in the show — reading a story to my dad.
When he was older, and in ill health?
I didn’t think of a one-man show that evening, but I knew it was one of the most important moments of my life. Not just because it meant so much to my dad, but later I realized it’s the best possible illustration of why I chose to be an actor — why I do it, and why people need stories. I’d never written anything for myself to perform, except sketch material. But I had this idea of using these incredible stories my father read to us when we were children.
When reciting “Haircut,” you act out the process of cutting someone’s hair with such precision.
I spent an afternoon with an old-time barber, who was the son of a barber. He taught me every little detail of that barbershop. The fun of this show is creating an entire set around me that’s completely invisible. Bit by bit, the audience knows where the sink is, the hot towels, where I keep the shaving mugs, scissors, combs. They know how my barber chair works. Yet it’s all mime.
Where’d you go to barber school, as it were?
A barbershop in Beverly Hills — and you know who recommended it to me? Larry Gelbart, of all people.
The TV producer who created “M*A*S*H”?
Gelbart was a member of the Bel-Air Country Club . . . and this guy would go there once a week to give haircuts. I told Gelbart about my project, and he said, “Oh, I’ve got just the barber for you.” [He laughs.] You’re the first journalist I’ve ever told this to.
You seem to have it all down — you clip the hair differently on the sides than the way you flip the hair up on top.
Actually . . . that’s a very deft maneuver that everybody takes for granted, except people who cut hair. You have two hands, a comb and scissors, but you have to sweep the hair up with the comb, transfer the comb to your left hand, snip with your right hand, then immediately put the comb back in your right hand and use your left to sweep the hair up. Very complicated. But, by God, I do it.
So it took some practice.
Ohhh, man. When I did this show on the road, there’d be months between gigs, and it would be soooo hard to get that stuff back. I could remember lines, but remembering the mime was almost impossible. I wanted to evoke memories of haircuts when you were a kid. I must say, it’s one of the things that really attracted me to the project — the acting challenge. [Pretending to use] props without [actual] props. [He pauses, chuckling.] I’m so appreciative you even noticed. Nobody ever talks about this and I put so much thought into it.
Onstage you talk about your childhood, moving frequently. Ever wish your parents had settled down more?
A few times it was hard leaving one school and starting another. Around sixth, seventh, eighth grades — pretty vulnerable years. But every time we moved it took me a shorter time to fit in. By 11th grade, I was an expert — I arrived at a new high school that year and they voted me student council president by January. I was either going to be an actor or a politician. Thank God, I became an actor.