Midway through his sweet but slight solo Broadway show, “Stories By Heart,” John Lithgow addressed the audience.
“Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to tuck in my shirt,” he said. “Sadly, that may be the most memorable moment of the entire evening.”
It wasn’t. Most noteworthy is this Tony- and Emmy-winner’s easygoing charm, along with his talent for creating distinct voices and visages for characters. He has honed his skills during a long career in which he’s played such roles as aliens (“3rd Rock from the Sun”), columnists (“The Sweet Smell of Success”) and Winston Churchill (“The Crown”).
Still, there’s something to his scripted quip about being memorable. Lithgow’s show is personal and has heart. But it also has a weak pulse. Long story short: The two-hour piece, directed for the Roundabout by Daniel Sullivan, makes for a slim evening.
The concept is simple: “Tonight you’re going to hear two stories … and how they connect to my life,” said Lithgow. He does that amid a minimal staging — a rug, dark walls, a few sticks of furniture, moody lighting.
“Stories By Heart” is at its best when John Lithgow reveals personal reflections.
First up: Ring Lardner’s “The Haircut.” The story benefitted from its tonal shifts from light to shadowy and having only one speaking character — a gossipy, giggly barber. Lithgow summoned a salon’s worth of air props — scissors, combs and brushes. He added sound effects, like the whoosh of a barber’s cape. He moved as though he’d trimmed tresses for years.
After intermission, he breathed life into numerous characters in P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” — a holdover from a 2008 Off-Broadway version of “Stories By Heart.”
Tracing the intricate and lengthy tale of a mischievous relative, Lithgow gave his all — vivid expressions, elastic accents, playing the part of a parrot, and more. Still, it hit me that I’d rather read the story than watch it be performed.
The show was at its best between the works of fiction, when Lithgow revealed his own true heart and why stories became family treasures. He marveled that “Haircut” first tickled his fancy at age 8 — and still does. More dramatically and touchingly, “Uncle Fred” was the only thing perked up his desperately ill dad.
“Stories By Heart” doesn’t quite work that same magic.
Through March 4 at the American Airlines Theatre