By Karen Isaacs
John Lithgow is one of America’s outstanding actors. He’s created numerous roles and won multiple awards, most recently an Emmy for playing Winston Churchill on “The Crown.”
His wide ranging talent is on display at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater where his one-man play, Stories by Heart is until March 4.
Go see it.
As an audience member said, “I could listen to him read his laundry list.”
A small part of the show is about his father, Arthur Lithgow who was an actor, director, artistic director and founder of various theater groups mainly in the Midwest. He founded the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (which continues to this day), worked with a group of actors who became well known, but always managed to have it end in disaster – feuds with boards of directors, financial difficulties, and more. But the family would pull up stakes, move on and start over.
Yet Stories by Heart is really Lithgow presenting two short stories to us. The first is by Ring Lardner, “Haircut.” It is essential the thoughts and words of a small town barber, circa 1925 talking to his customer who sits silently in the chair. With no props, Lithgow recreates the old-time barbershop experience from the hot towels, to the stropping of the blade, the lather and more. He even creates wonderful sound effects. But the story which begins as a pleasant tale of small town America and one of the men of the town, slowly turns into something more. Before our eyes, we begin to realize that while the barber tells the story of this man who liked to play practical and cruel jokes on women and weaker men, rather than feeling disgust at his antics, sees nothing wrong in them. It becoming chilling to realize that he is complicit in the casual cruelty.
Lithgow gets it all right – the body language, the accent and more. He seems transformed; I began to picture him as this round-faced, medium sized, bald man with the white jacket. That is talent.
In the second half, he talks about his father’s last years and how, when his father was recovering from surgery and seemed to have given up, Lithgow stayed with his parents for several months, caring for them. He tells of finding the thick book of short stories from which his father had read to him and siblings, and his decision to reverse it: he would read to his parents.
It was with delight that he found parents chose the same light story that he and his siblings had loved: P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”. This silly comic story about a man whose uncle (Fred) always gets them into various pickles is a laugh fest. Here Lithgow gives us multiple characters from Uncle Fred, to the nephew, to the nephew’s friend and others.
Again he is marvelous. He does so much with his voice, his eyes, his gestures his posture. We see the characters and we laugh at the ridiculous situations they find themselves in, all due to Uncle Fred.
This two hour production is delight for anyone who enjoys seeing talented actors demonstrate their skills.
For tickets, visit Roundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
I finally got to see the revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance now at the Golden Theater through Feb. 22. It was worth the wait.
Let’s start by aknowledging that Albee is a brilliant playwright. His work is layered with ideas and emotions. Every good production of one of his plays causes me to think about it in different ways and consider new ideas.
This production does just that. I’ve seen A Delicate Balance before in fine productions. But once again I was thinking about these characters and looking at some of them very differently than I had before. For that praise must be given director Pam MacKinnon.
If you have not seen the show, it opens in a definitely well-to-do living room in suburban Philadelphia. We meet Agnes (Glenn Close) and Tobias (John Lithgow) — a long married couple. You quickly realize that Agnes makes the decisions and keeps everything under control even her emotions, while Tobias seems to have abdicated all involvement. We learn that her sister, Claire (Lindsay Duncan) is living with them and is an alcoholic. We also learn that their daughter, Julia (Martha Plimpton) has been through several marriages each time returning home and the pattern seems about to repeat itself. But what upsets the delicate balance of this family is the sudden and unexpected arrival of their longtime friends, Edna (Clare Higgins) and Harry (Bob Balaban). They have inexplicably been affected by “the terrors” and intend to move in with Agnes and Tobias.
Over the course of the weekend, these six people tell some truths and some lies, display hidden agendas all of which cause them to confront some aspect of their choices and the lives they live. Has the “delicate balance” been upset? Will it return to the equilibrium previously established? Albee does not provide answers. That is left up to each of us.
This production is a blessed with a fine cast who is able to dive beneath the surface and subtly show us and hint at the emotions roiling beneath the surface.
We have the three more restrained characters: Tobias who is either extremely passive or depressed or has just given up. Agnes is an example of the upper class WASP who buries emotion and does what is expected to keep things running smoothly with minimal outward conflict. And even Harry seems intent on keeping his emotions in check.
But the other three women more than make up for the hidden emotions and oblique language of the those. Claire proudly declares she is not an alcoholic but a drunk. Julia seems entitled to come home and reclaim her old room whenever a marriage fails. Edna acts as though the house is hers and Julia her daughter and that obligates her to tell her what she really thinks.
So what is it all about? You can come to your own conclusions — are “the terrors” the fear of growing old or being alone? Is there a hidden dynamic between Julia and Agnes that leads to the repeated failed marriages? Is Claire the alter ego of Agnes — what Agnes would like to be if she could “let go”?
Many other interpretations and ideas emerge as you think about this fascinating play. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it is just about an upper class WASP family. It is not.
All of the performers are fine. Each actor has found a unique aspect of their characters. Julia is perhaps the least likable character — a 30+ woman who feels as entitled as a teenager and as demanding. Plimpton captures that completely. Claire as portrayed by Lindsay Duncan likes to “stir the pot” and annoy her sister. It is perhaps indicative of Tobias’ passive-aggressive stance that he keeps replenishing her drinks.
I’ve never seen an Edna played as aggressively as Clare Higgins does. This is an Edna who is smug, angry and tactless. Higgins is not afraid to be unlikeable.
Glenn Close gives us an Agnes who you see figuratively biting her tongue rather than respond to Edna. She is a woman who feels both put upon and yet proud of the way she has kept everything in place and running smoothly.
Harry is perhaps the most underwritten character. We never really get a handle on him, but he too seems, as played by Balaban, to be unable to stand up to his wife.
Lithgow as Tobias brings his usual touch of humanity to a role that could be seen as passive. You sense a deep melancholy in him — has retirement been that unsatisfying or has his entire life been a disappointment? There is some reference to a son who died years ago, but we never learn how he died or at what age. At one point Agnes hints that Tobias may feel guilty about his death, but we learn no other details.
As the curtain was coming down, Lithgow did a small bit of stage business that was probably missed by most of the audience. But to me it reflected the character and Lithgow’s brilliance. Tobias is sitting in his arm chair after Edna and Harry have left and Julia and Claire have gone upstairs. Agnes comes over and puts her hand on his shoulder. As the curtain is descending, Tobias reaches up and puts his hand on hers.
Santa Loquasto has given a sense of place that helps ground the play as do the costumes of Ann Roth and the lighting by Brian MacDevitt.
If you enjoy intellectually interesting plays, A Delicate Balance will keep you talking for days.
A Delicate Balance is at the Golden Theater on W. 45th Street through Feb. 22. For tickets visit telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
As a longtime admirer of John Lithgow — from his performance in The Changing Room at Long Wharf in 1972 to today — I was looking forward to his King Lear in the current production of the tragedy now playing in Central Park through Aug. 17.
He always bring enormous humanity to his roles, whether they are heroes are villains, so much so that we sometimes like characters that we should not.
His Lear lives up to my expectations. This is a King who seemingly exhibits the early signs of dementia — where there are many moments of lucidity followed by erratic behavior and actions. He is slowly losing his ability to process information. Anyone approaching the later years of life or knowing someone who is — must recognize how terrifying that is and must, therefore, sympathize with his inability or refusal to recognize what is happening.
Before going into details of the acting and directing, the terrific set, lighting, sound and costumes must be acknowledged. This is a stage with minimal props, yet John Lee Beatty has created the perfect scenic design — a wall that appears to be metallic with an abstract pattern. He’s added the thrust stage and two wooden bridges that move on and off as needed — one on each side. Lighting designer Jeff Crotter has used that background to create a variety of effects — moving us from day to night to storm. With the lighting and the sound design by Acme Sound Partners we can feel the rain of the pelting storm and want to duck as lightening seems to strike us. In addition, three metallic panels are used to good effect as drums. The costumes by Susan Hilferty put as firmly into a medieval frame of mind.
So let’s talk about the actors and the work of director Daniel Sullivan. Sullivan gives us a clear, accessible production. Even without the synopsis, it is easy to follow. It is also a very complete version of the play, running over 3 hours. Yet, in many respects, it is a King Lear that left me unmoved. While clearly spoken, it did not leave me emotionally drained at the end.
It wasn’t Lithgow’s Lear — he did move me. Clark Peters as the Earl of Gloucester and Steven Boyer as Lear’s fool also moved me. The actors created characters you cared about. But even Cordelia, played by Jessica Collins, left me unmoved. Neither in the beginning nor the end was I invested in the character or her dilemma.
Annette Bening plays Goneril as a character who is so controlled that she seems more like an robot than a living, breathing person. Is there any emotion beneath the surface? I couldn’t find it. Jessica Hecht goes to the other extreme as Regan. This is a woman of many physical and vocal ticks, but again, it is hard to find the emotion.
King Lear has always seemed to me, to be the most “Greek” of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies, and as such, I anticipate catharsis. Unfortunately in this production, despite the splendid work of John Lithgow and the production team, it did not happen.