Ring Lardner's America: A One-Man Show Starring John Lithgow

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, John Lithgow, Stories by Heart

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

It is sometime in the Roaring Twenties and the town barber is regaling people in his shop with tales about his friends and neighbors in the community. There is the old doctor and the young doctor, the boy who is “not right” in the head, the traveling salesman, husbands, wives and young women who are in love. Each story is funnier than the other and the barber, actor John Lithgow, rolls on and on with his anecdotes, cocking his head back over his shoulder to laugh at them himself.

As he talks to the audience, continually creating the snipping sound of scissors with his mouth as he gives a man a haircut in a vacant large leather chair in the middle of the stage, you tumble back into this small town in middle America created by writer Ring Lardner with its ponds, forests, Main Street, quiet, friendly neighborhoods and a cavalcade of amusing residents.

In John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, the delightful one-man show that opened at the American Airlines Theater, on 42d Street, New York, last week, you travel back in time to ponder the beauty of American life nearly a hundred years ago through the eyes of a short story writer, Lardner, who spins a multiple character, multi-mood drama for you. Lardner’s “The Haircut’ is paired with P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” a howlingly funny 1936 British tale by the marvelous P.G. Wodehouse (yes, he’s the one who invented the character Jeeves).

This marvelous evening in the theater is a deliberate effort by the actor, who has been on tour with this show for quite a while, to resuscitate interest in the short story, pretty much dead in American letters, and, at the same time, give audiences an historic look at the 1920s in middle American and 1930s England.

It is not the stories themselves, that are so colorful and funny, that make the play so enjoyable. but the stories from Lithgow’s own life and the way he portrays a dozen or more characters in the two stories, lovingly so.

The play starts off with Lithgow, a titanic actor who won the Emmy last year for playing Sir Winston Churchill in the Netflix series The Crown, talking about his life in a small Ohio town as a boy. Anybody who grew up in a small town can sit there and, as he rambles on, one funny tory after another, remember their own childhood. Lithgow’s dad ran several Shakespeare companies in Ohio and it was there, helping him, that he got the acting bug and there, thanks to him, that he picked up books of short stories and fell in love with the writing genre. He tells you all about his parents and siblings. You fall in love with him, and his own history, prior to the play itself.

Lithgow’s descriptions of the people in the stories of Lardner and Wodehouse are sheer magic. He plays both men and women (the women are terrific) and even a parrot. The best scene in the play was Lithgow emulating an angry parrot squawking away with a crunched up, sourpuss face. Lithgow takes huge steps across the stage, raises his eyebrows to his hairline, stretches his arms, widens his eyes, squirms in his big soft chair and turns his body into a bundle of elastic strings at various moments in the play. He carries you back in time to the U.S. and to England and charms you with the tales of two of history’s greatest short story writers.

Which of the two stories you enjoy more depends upon your style of humor. Lardner’s is more dramatic and Wodehouse’s sarcastic and jubilant look at Britain’s upper crust society is, well, outright hilarious.

Lardner’s “The Haircut” is a straight forward Andy Griffith Show style story, with a stunning conclusion. You fly higher and higher and then…WHOMP.

Wodehouse’s tale is that of a visit by an Uncle to his family in London. It starts with a simple arrival and then expands farther and farther outward as more characters and sub plots are added. It is very funny and you will chuckle about it long after you leave the theater.

Each writer’s life was a story in itself. Lardner became a very famous sports columnist and covered the 1919 Black Sox World Series. He then switched over the general fiction and wrote several books and numerus short stories. He died tragically at the age of 48.

Wodehouse, who lived to be 93, was the star of British literature until World War II. He was living in France in 1940 and incarcerated by the Nazis when they over ran the country. He was detained for a year. He was then allowed to go home if he made several radio broadcasts from Berlin. The broadcasts seemed harmless to many but infuriated the Brits because he was speaking on a Nazi station, the enemy’s. The disgust with the writer was considerable and he never returned to England, moving to the U.S at the end of the war. Prior to the conflict he had lived in the U.S. and wrote several Broadway musicals and some movie scripts.

One problem in the play is not created by Lithgow or the two authors, but by the audience. You MUST listen to Lithgow and his characters very closely. The stories cannonball their way across the stage and if you don’t tune in you might tune out. You need to listen to every character, and there are many, and every nuance to revel in the majesty of the stories and the people in them, all brought to life triumphantly by one of America’s greatest actors.

Lardner and Wodehouse were among the best of the short story writers, a genre that has just about seen its day. The short story thrived in America in the 19th century because few newspapers serialized novels (too long) for a roving population that had little time to read them. The papers gave the readers the short story, easy to read quickly, instead. In the last days of the 19th century top short story writers could earn $200,000 or so in today’s money. The short tale died in the 1930s and 1940s, though, because people went to the movies instead. There they found a very involved tales full of engaging actors tale told in just two hours or so. The short story headed for the typewriter graveyard. Today, only a few large magazines publish them and the short story magazines are just about gone, too. So, it is a delight to see short stories on stage again. Hallelujah!

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Sets: John Lee Beatty, Costumes: Jess Goldstein, Lighting: Kenneth Posner, Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald. The play is directed by Daniel Sullivan. It runs through March 4, 2018.

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