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‘Stories by Heart’ review: John Lithgow’s heartwarming tribute to his father

John Lithgow performs two short stories in "Stories

John Lithgow performs two short stories in "Stories by Heart" and honors his father, a master storyteller. Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart”

WHERE American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., Manhattan

INFO $39-$139 at roundabouttheatre.org, 212-719-1300

BOTTOM LINE An emotional tribute to family and storytelling

“Why do all of us want to hear stories? Why do some of us want to tell them?”

The questions are asked and oh, so eloquently answered by John Lithgow, in his heartwarming one-man show, “Stories by Heart,” just opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Taking the Ten Commandments to heart, Lithgow honors his father and mother with this sentimental look at his family’s past, a work he’s been kicking around in various forms for a decade or so.

Coming onstage to more-than-typical entrance applause, the versatile Emmy (six) and Tony (two) winner, who has portrayed everyone from Winston Churchill in “The Crown” to an alien in “3rd Rock from the Sun,” clutches a thick, well-worn book. “It’s my only prop,” he notes, gingerly setting the 1,500-page 1939 anthology of short stories put together by W. Somerset Maugham on a table stage left. It’s the book his father, Arthur, who ran a Shakespeare festival in Ohio, regularly read from to entertain young John and his three siblings.

Lithgow performs two of those stories. The first, “Haircut” by Ring Lardner, is a gruesome tale set in a Midwestern barbershop involving, in Lithgow’s words, “adultery, misogyny and murder.” Using impressive mime skills, Lithgow portrays a barber giving a customer, new to the town, a shave and haircut as he weaves his story about a bunch of locals, one of whom comes to a grisly end. “You’d think that a dark story like that was pretty tough going for an 8-year-old boy, wouldn’t you?” asks Lithgow. “But no! I thought it was great.”

Far funnier is P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” Lithgow makes full use of his theatrical repertoire, prancing about the elegantly wood-paneled stage (set by John Lee Beatty) playing with hysterical facial expressions and contortions an interesting assortment of crazy characters. They range from an obviously dotty aristocrat to a pretentiously proper Englishwoman to a parrot (yes, a parrot).

This is the story Lithgow emotionally recalls reading while caring for his ailing 86-year-old father, a story he believes brought his dad back from the deep gloom caused by declining health.

Arthur Lithgow lived another year and a half after that reading. “Precious months,” says Lithgow, with barely a dry eye in the house. Also precious, to anyone who sees “Stories by Heart,” is the loving way son has chosen to pay tribute to father. “It’s one of the bright little pleasures of my life,” says Lithgow, “speaking his name out loud on a Broadway stage.”

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