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CULTURE MONSTER

John Lithgow is wary of one-man shows, but he feels up to the task as he visits the Mark Taper Forum with his solo piece about storytelling.

January 05, 2011|James C. Taylor

NEW YORK — Almost 30 years ago, John Lithgow vowed never again to do a one-man show.

Lithgow was coming off "Kaufman at Large," a solo show he also wrote about playwright, critic and wit George S. Kaufman, at the height of his notoriety in 1930s. It ran for 22 performances off-Broadway in 1981.

"It failed ... and I swore I'd never do it again because -- it sounds stupid -- but it was lonely," the actor recalls over lunch on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "It was literally lonely. There isn't the comradeship of a theater company, the energy you get from each other."

"After that, I followed my promise 'I will never do another solo show,' " he says, laughing, "until this one." This week, Lithgow brings the solo theater piece "Stories by Heart" to the Mark Taper Forum.

In the 26 years between "Kaufman at Large" and "Stories by Heart," which was first seen in 2008 at Lincoln Center Theatre, Lithgow went from a well-regarded New York actor into a bona-fide star, picking up Emmy ("3rd Rock From the Sun," "Dexter") and Tony ("The Changing Room," "Sweet Smell of Success") awards, Oscar nominations and in 2001, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

What made Lithgow break his promise to himself? First, he rediscovered a short story his father read to him as a young boy. "I just began to think: 'All I have to do is memorize 'Uncle Fred Flits By' and I have a wonderful piece of theater.' " (The story, by P.G. Wodehouse, and how Lithgow came across it as an adult, makes up the first half of "Stories by Heart.")

Second, the actor discovered what he calls "a healthy arrogance."

In case anyone fears that Lithgow takes himself too seriously, he's no less wry today about his craft than he was when he was sending up pompous actors in his classic "Master Thespian" sketches on "Saturday Night Live" back in the 1980s.

"To be honest," he says, "the idea of even going to a one-man show is always ... well, I remember Mike Nichols saying, 'When I hear the phrase "one-man show," something in me just dies.' And I know what he means.

"But I guess I have gradually accumulated a healthy arrogance about myself," he says with a self-deprecating smile. "I feel like I have something to say about what I do -- and I've never really presumed to do that before. I've never wanted to be a teacher, I've always been, to the extent that I have pontificated, I'm embarrassed -- but now I feel, 'No, I have a lot to share.' " Similarly, he has written a book, "Drama: An Actor's Education," that will be published by HarperCollins in October.

Lithgow often can be seen (at 6 feet 4, he's hard to miss) at New York's theaters and opera houses. He may joke about the strange road that brought him to the Taper for a one-man show, but the veteran actor still holds a passionate, if realistic, belief in the power of a story told on stage.

"Let's be honest, most theater is a disappointment," he says, "but when you see great theater, it is astonishing, just astonishing -- and when you're a part of it, when you're actually the one having that impact -- you know, it's pretty rare for actors too, far more of what we do is a disappointment to us -- but boy, when it works, that's what it's about."

Lithgow's trust in the theater comes to him, at least in part, from his father, who founded Shakespeare companies in the Midwest and ran the prestigious McCarter Theatre at Princeton in the 1960s. So it's unsurprising that "Stories by Heart" ultimately is a meditation on storytelling and performance.

"I'm absolutely determined to entertain people," he says. "I want them to have a fabulous time, and also leave thinking about theater in a slightly different way, how the impact of theater can be so simple. One of the most powerful plays I've ever seen was 'Master Harold ... and the Boys' in its original production. And that was three people on a single set. But the moment of Harold spitting in his house boys' face -- that was more powerful than 'Avatar.' You know, give me $150 million in special effects and it won't have the power of that single simple gesture."

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