John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

Legendary Storytellers: Lardner and Wodehouse


RING LARDNER (1885-1933) was born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner in Niles, Michigan into a wealthy family. He was tutored privately in his home, and showed an early interest in music, athletics, theatre, and writing. After high school, he enrolled briefly in engineering school but, after failing every class except for writing, decided to pursue journalism. Lardner started his writing career in 1905 working as a sports reporter for the South Bend Times. In 1907 he moved to Chicago to report for the Chicago Examiner, traveling with the White Sox on their spring tour. In 1910 the St. Louis Sporting News offered him a position as their managing editor and featured writer, which he eagerly accepted. However, Lardner couldn’t stay away from Chicago for too long, especially once the Chicago Tribune offered him the opportunity to write for the daily column “In the Wake of the News”. In 1916 Lardner published his first book, You Know Me Al, originally published as six separate but related short stories from the The Saturday Evening Post. You Know Me Al developed into a nationally syndicated comic strip written by Lardner and drawn by Will B. Johnstone and Dick Dorgan. Lardner went on to publish many other short stories such as “Haircut”, “Some Like Them Cold”, “The Golden Honeymoon”, “Alibi Ike,” and “A Day with Conrad Green.” He also pursued his long time passion for theater and music, writing the play June Moon which premiered at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1929 and wrote songs and lyrics for Bert Williams, Jerome Kern and Aubrey Stauffer, among others. Lardner and F. Scott Fitzgerald were good friends, and remained so until his death in 1933 at the age of 48, of complications from tuberculosis.

PG WODEHOUSE (1881-1975) was born in Guildford, Surrey, United Kingdom to Eleanor and Henry Ernest. Wodehouse’s father was a magistrate resident in the British colony of Hong Kong, so as a young child he and his two older siblings traveled a fair amount without seeing their parents for long periods of time. Many biographers believe that this isolation caused him to avoid emotional engagement in both his life and his works, but allowed for him to create fantastical imaginary worlds from a very early age. At the age of 12, Wodehouse followed his brother to Dulwich College, a boarding school for boys in southeast London. There he was able to sing, become an editor for the school magazine and become involved in athletics. Wodehouse was expected to follow the path of his older siblings and go onto college, but his family’s finances took a turn for the worse and he was forced to take a job in the London office of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. Wodehouse found the work to be extremely boring, and would long for the end of the day so he could go home and write. In 1902 he has his first real publication: his short story called “The Prize Poem” was published in Public School Magazine. He resigned from the bank that same month in order to devote himself to writing full time. Many of his early works were related to his experience in English boarding school, but he also wrote comic fiction, a series of novels, Broadway musical comedies that served as a precursor for the American musical, and even wrote for MGM in Hollywood during the 1930s. Wodehouse was famous for the extensive research he would do before starting a book (writing up to four hundreds pages of notes in preparation) and his use of highly original phrases and manipulation of language that made for humorous, clever dialogue and characters.

John Lithgow: Stories By Heart runs through March 4, 2018 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2017-2018 Season, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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On January 7, 2018, Annette Saddik spoke about Stories By Heart with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.

Annette Saddik is Professor of English and Theatre at New York City College of Technology and the CUNY Graduate Center Doctoral Program in Theatre. Her area of specialization is twentieth- and twenty-first-century drama and performance, particularly the work of Tennessee Williams. 

An edited transcript follows:

(There are spoilers below)

Ted Sod: I’m thrilled to have Annette Saddik with us again. Annette has joined us before for other discussions. She is considered one of the foremost Tennessee Williams experts in our country and was the lecture guest for our production of Williams’ 1962 play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. She also participated in the lecture when we produced Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, and she and I were onstage together for our revival of Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly. She is a doctor of theatre and literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and New York City College of Technology.  I wanted to start with the question John poses in the piece and deliberately doesn’t answer because he wants the audience to contemplate it. What is it about the human need for stories? How do you understand that need? What is that all about?

Annette Saddik: What I like to talk about in my classes is the relationship between storytelling and identity. There’s a wonderful excerpt from Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, where the character Eddie suggests to Martin that they could "tell stories" to pass the time, and Martin says, “I don’t know any stories.” So Eddie says, “Then make one up.” But Martin replies, “That'd be lying, wouldn't it?" And Eddie says, “No no. Lying's when you believe it’s true -- if you already know it’s a lie, then it’s not lying.” So what is it then?  It’s art. It’s storytelling. This idea that we willingly suspend our disbelief to hear stories is timeless. It’s been happening since the beginning of theatre. In his memoir, John talks about having to flex your emotional muscles through storytelling. I think one of the primary things for me is that it allows us to experience multiple identities, multiple selves, multiple experiences, as well as making sense of our own experiences. We have all this stuff happening in our lives that doesn’t necessarily have a beginning, middle and end. Telling or listening to stories allows us to frame, shape, and control just like any other art. Music takes noise and random sound and orders it, makes it into something that we can relate to in a way that has meaning. Same with color and the visual arts, or words and telling stories.


TS: Annette just referenced John’s memoir entitled Drama. We both read it because we found it fascinating. The introduction to his memoir is about the genesis of the piece you just saw. I wonder if storytelling or the human need for telling stories is on the same level of love, shelter, food and, if you don’t live in the tropics, clothing. Is this need for storytelling something we are programmed with or is it an acquired thing?

 AS: I think we are programmed. Every society has had a storytelling tradition. And when we meet someone, we want to know their story. There is a very popular movement in psychotherapy, which focuses on “changing your story.”  Doing this evidently helps people change their lives. Stories shape our lives, there is an essential need for that.

Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: Does the medium matter? One of the things that John does at the beginning of this piece is ask the audience, “Why did you come here today, you all look so hopeful?” Do you think people actually think about why they go to the theatre before they go?

 AS: I hope so. It’s a different experience to be in a room with other people hearing stories because otherwise we only know about our own experiences and, to some extent, those of our friends. When you go to the theatre and you see another world onstage and you experience that with other people, that’s something we don’t typically get to do. There’s this beautiful quotation from Gregory Moss, the author of the play Indian Summer, and he talks about how we go to the theatre because we need to contemplate things that we can’t explain. For instance, why are some people born into a world of money, with health, comfort, and beauty, and other people suffer in countless ways. These questions don’t have answers. The need for theatre is very spiritual and it’s also an intellectual and emotional need. We can’t really do without it.


TS: What about escape? Do you think reading, in a solitary way, is about escaping your identity?

 AS: I’ve certainly experienced that. I think most people who read experience that. You enter another world and you’re escaping the limitations of your own circumstances. Why do we go on amusement park rides? Why do we want to be scared? Why go to horror movies? It allows us to experience different emotions.


TS: I also wonder if storytelling is something we need to help explain the psychology of the human race. I don’t know if we always get a satisfactory answer. Do you think we see or reread certain stories over and over again because they give us the answers we want to hear, rather than the truth?

 AS: That’s a good question. Maybe they are the answers we feel are true, that correspond to what we know to be true. And those answers may not be true for everybody.


TS: I find that most people have friendships with people who think like them. You might  gravitate towards writers whose work resonates with you and you may resist the work of people who are politically different than you.

 AS: And emotionally different.


TS: Maybe we really only want to experience art that makes our world view valid. Do you think that’s true?

 AS: Sometimes. I think those are most likely the works of art that we connect to most strongly. Some people do flex their muscles and go outside that. When I was a little kid, I read some Tennessee Williams and it made sense to me. Like John was saying about stories that he heard when he was eight that were not necessarily appropriate for children that age, but he got them. I got those Williams stories. Maybe they just corresponded with something I felt, my worldview at the time.


TS: It’s funny you mention connecting to Tennessee Williams as a child. I remember I snuck into the local movie house when I was nine or eight to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I did not understand what was going on. I sat through that film three times and all I remember is this finger tapping me on the shoulder; it was my father and he said, “Your mother is waiting for you, she has dinner on the table and you’ve been out of the house for six hours.” Then he looked up at the screen and saw Elizabeth Taylor in a full slip and sat back and watched it. That film was speaking to me in a way it shouldn’t have because I was a kid. There’s an organic connection to certain stories, whether it’s because it makes our point of view more valid or opens up a doorway to some understanding of who we are or where we come from. It’s fascinating to me.

 AS: It’s like falling in love, sometimes you don’t know why. I think it’s similar with the authors we fall in love with. For me, it was Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in high school. I thought, wow, this is it! In my undergraduate classes at CUNY, I’ll have thirty students and perhaps two of them will have an epiphany with that play, and then others just don't relate to it at all. I found out that Williams and Beckett had a lot in common. Williams actually helped fund the first production of Godot in the United States at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida. There’s something about their world views -- at first sight they don’t match – but on closer inspection, they do.  Something in Williams's work I connected to is the complexity of identity and truth, and with Beckett, there's also a very complex relationship to truth and how we come to know or not know truth.


Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: I want to talk to you a bit about the two stories John performs as part of the show. How did you relate to them? Are you a Ring Lardner or P.G Wodehouse fan?

 AS: I know some of their stories; they’re not necessarily stories I'm connected to.


TS: So today you appreciated them on what level?

 AS: I liked seeing them through John’s eyes. That, for me, was pleasurable about today. Also, I loved his performance of all the characters because the performing he does brings a whole new level to the work.  When we see people performing a solo show as "themselves," we often don’t pick it apart, character is invisible. We take for granted the subtleties of character and behavior and gloss over them; we see something natural or seamless. But when you see somebody performing these different characters, it allows us to look at the performance and see various aspects of what it means to create a self. That’s what I really enjoyed. He’s an amazing actor.


TS: I wanted to point out that in Haircut, the twists are really up to the audience to figure out. The idea that the “halfwit” could have deliberately killed the jokester is not necessarily obvious to everybody, would you agree?

 AS: Absolutely.


TS: I wonder if because I live in New York I have a darker sensibility. I sensed that that is what the audience should take away at the end.  But just now I thought, everybody is going to take away what they want from that story. I’m curious what you took away?

 AS: Being a Tennessee Williams scholar, I tend to have a darker sensibility. I also felt the same way you did.


TS: What I love about the structure of Lardner’s piece is the fact that the barber is oblivious to what was really going on. I kept visualizing the man in the chair and kept visualizing his reactions and kept trying to understand that this guy was taking all this in and probably making a judgment about this town. He seemed like a newcomer. With the Wodehouse piece, the audience gets to meet this marvelous scam artist. I’ve always understood that Americans love to read about con artists -- do you find that to be true?

 AS: I’ve talked to several people who feel that way. David Mamet, of course, has done a lot of work about con artists and their games. I don’t know if it has something to do with our scrappy beginnings as a country -- we don’t have the same history as Britain or Europe. We care much more about getting by on the streets with our wits, our sense of making something out of nothing, the American Dream.


TS: It’s curious because Wodehouse is a British author writing about somebody who is probably not a con artist in his mind – he probably just saw him as audacious. He will try anything for an adventure. I’m not quite sure if he would be considered a con artist in Britain. The other thing that comes to mind is how come we like con artists in our stories, but not necessarily in our politics?

AS: It’s interesting that you bring up conning and stories because I often think about how when somebody sits and tells us a story that we believe is true, we put our faith in that person, we have an emotional connection. If it turns out that story was not true--for example, if we all found out tomorrow that John’s father is alive and well--we would feel a sense of betrayal. At some level stories are always a kind of con. But on another level, we want to believe there is truth or honesty, something that is real about the story. If you meet somebody and they tell you something about themselves and it turns out it wasn’t literally true but something they felt was true – it can be construed as a betrayal. For instance, Blanche DuBois telling Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire “I never lied in my heart.” Where is the line between truth and lying in storytelling?


TS: It’s funny you should bring up Blanche because she’s so complex. I never really sensed her lying to Mitch -- she just doesn’t tell him everything and there is a difference between telling a barefaced lie and holding back some of the facts. He has to find out through Stanley that she has a jaded past. It’s really that story of her past that comes to haunt her. And it is really fascinating to me as I believe it’s a moral lesson. This brings to me one of my last questions before we open it up to the audience. Does every story have to have a moral? It seems to me that audiences want that. They want to walk away with the question: “What did I learn from this?” How do you understand the phrase, “the moral of a story”?

 AS: For me, the best stories don’t have morals. I think a story without a moral is most faithful to life. It’s not something that’s pretending to be the absolute truth. It allows us to digest and come up with our own connections and truths. A story with a delineated moral is not interesting to me -- a good story is one that’s more flexible.


TS: Do you ever ask yourself, what does this mean to my life when you’re experiencing a story? Or is that not important to you?

 AS: What I look for is how does this story make meaning, how does it help people understand our place in the world.  But I don’t think I do that consciously.


Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: What I took away from today’s performance is John’s relationship to his parents and the love that he has for them -- especially at the end when he wishes them both goodnight and hopes they are feeling better. It’s extremely moving to watch the adult son of deceased parents have that beautiful connection. It’s palpable how much he misses them and how much he owes them for his career and his understanding of humanity. Would you agree?

 AS: Absolutely.  His memoir echoes that as well. It’s a beautifully written book. I didn’t know that his father, Arthur Lithgow, was a man of the theatre. It’s his relationship to his parents, especially his father, that’s at the core of today’s show.


TS: His mom was a retired actress and his son, Ian, is an actor -- so he is part of an acting dynasty. Certainly, if you are a would-be actor or know any, Drama is a must read. There are two stories in his memoir that Annette and I love. One is about John coming back from LAMDA,  the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where he had a Fulbright scholarship which allowed him to study there. He tells a story about one of his first jobs when he came back to the states – it was at the Bucks County Playhouse and he was in a Neil Simon piece playing an American, but he had acquired a distinct British accent. One of his sisters said she refused to talk to him until he “unacquired” it.

 AS: The director just kept yelling at him until he lost his accent.


TS: Every time he would speak a line that sounded British, the director would ring a bell. It was Pavlovian. The second story I love is when he was doing a reading of a play at the Manhattan Theatre Club when they used to be on the East Side. I think the play took place in Appalachia or the Ozarks. He walked into a room and there was a young woman there he describes as a mousey blonde woman and he thought to himself, oh they got somebody from Appalachia to play this part. A real person. It wasn’t until a few years later when he was cast in Trelawny of the “Wells”, that he realized that that Appalachian woman was actually Meryl Streep.

 AS: He was also cast with Streep in a show that was comprised of two one-acts, Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, a precursor to the film Baby Doll, and Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays.


TS: That was a double bill that I got to see. Streep transformed herself into this buxom character for the Williams piece and then became this taut, thin office worker in the Miller piece. We are opening this up to audience questions now.  We are curious about what draws you to the theatre and what you think the human need for stories is?


Audience Member #1: What I love is the reaction that I get when I tell a story. For me, it’s understanding what it is to be human and to be a member of this race, this life. Our life is a story. Also, we all hear stories by experiencing entertainment. For instance, I love "Game of Thrones" -- the characters on that show are despicable -- but I look for a moral or hope. What I’m able to do is see parts of myself in these angry, horrible people. And even the worst characters on "Game of Thrones" love their mother or their dog.

 TS: I actually brought some quotes which I think relate to this point. Mary Lawrence, who is a teacher at the Journalism School at the University of Missouri says, “People have had their stories from the beginning whether they’re fables, for teaching lessons great and small, or histories that tell us where we came from, or stories that help us cope with the world. Look how we crave stories about any event, like how a team prepped for a game or how people got out of the World Trade Center.” There is another quote that I thought was worthwhile. This is from The Atlantic: “A recent study in Science Magazine says that stories can help people understand others, determining that literary fiction uniquely engages psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences, that is to say, if you read novels, you can probably read emotions.” I think that’s true of going to the theatre. I often feel I learned more about human nature by being in love with the theatre than from my own relationships.


Audience Member #2: I’d like to build on that quote from that professor from the University of Missouri and the Sam Shepard story that Annette told earlier. To me, stories are a wonderful teaching vehicle because they are vivid and they’re memorable. If you had tried to make your point in an abstract way, I would have totally forgotten it. But I’ll remember that Sam Shepard story. How often do either of you use stories or narratives as a teaching vehicle?

 AS: Maybe not consciously, but I do it all the time. It is what some students will remember. In religion, we use parables and in the theatre and in the classroom, we tell stories.

 TS: I had no intention of telling that story of sitting through three showings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But it seemed to relate to what Annette was saying about understanding Williams on some deep level when she was younger. I think the more personal we can make it when teaching or engaging audiences, the more effective it is. If it comes from the heart, it always has a great effect.

AS: Learning more about emotion and how to read emotions from our own stories is why the humanities are so important. Students will learn empathy, emotion, psychology from the arts. From telling stories. It’s not just about having fun, it’s not something to be dismissed, it’s a basic human skill.

 TS: Having done a lot of teaching artist work in public schools, my biggest fear is that young people are losing empathy. I don’t mean everyone, I certainly don’t want to generalize, but I can sense that it may have to be taught. And the way it is taught is through storytelling and developing character. Empathy is extremely important for the wellbeing of our civilization.


Photo by Joan Marcus

Audience Member #3: In the spirit of John Lithgow, when I was very little I used to sleep at my grandmother’s house and I was afraid of falling asleep -- so I’d ask Nana to tell me a story. Thinking back upon that event as an adult, it seems we all face the great enigmatic question, “Why are we here?” None of us asked to be born or die and storytelling makes sense in my mind when faced with the question, “What does life even mean?”

 AS: I think unlike religion, stories don’t offer any definitive answers, which makes them all the more wonderful.

 TS: I think you’ve touched on something really profound. How do we wrestle with mortality? I don’t know if anybody is ever prepared for giving up this gift of life.  I think in some way, the stories we read or the adventures other people go on might help us be prepared for that. That fear of the unknown is omnipresent and a big part of why some people are not ready to face mortality.

 AS: There’s that saying that all literature is about sex and death. It’s true.


Audience Member #4: I wanted to ask you about space and how space relates to the tangible and intangible aspects of storytelling. If you take one extreme, Waiting for Godot in a black box theatre, and at the other extreme a musical with a spectacular set, there are two different expectations for what truth is in those extremes. For this space it’s an in-between. Where do you draw the line between truth and fantasy and how does that relate to stagecraft? What’s the connection between acting and the type of truth telling that comes through that space? What’s the relation between the space of the story and the story that’s being told?

 TS: I would say when a director is hired to direct a show here, they’re sometimes given the opportunity to change the space because it’s vital -- and we have learned this the hard way -- plays don’t always work well in this space because it is very wide.

 AS: Also, this is not a naturalistic piece, there’s the breaking of the fourth wall and John is talking to the audience in an intimate way. For a Broadway show, that’s very tricky. I can see why they chose this theater and the set design. I can also see this show working in a much smaller space.


John Lithgow: Stories By Heart runs through March 4, 2018 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2017-2018 Season, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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Stories by Heart Interview with Daniel Sullivan


Dan Sullivan

Ted Sod: I want to start by talking about your getting involved with John Lithgow: Stories By Heart because, based on my research, it seems like the show has had a long journey.

Daniel Sullivan: Yes, Jack O’Brien first directed the show at Lincoln Center. I think that even before Lincoln Center, John had tried it out at a couple places and then asked Jack to take a look at it when he was doing it at Lincoln Center. Since that time, John has gone out on the road with it and has changed some material he’s doing. The order in which he’s doing it, etc. Since Jack was otherwise engaged with Carousel on Broadway, John asked me to get involved.

TS: I did notice that from reading reviews since about 2008 that the show has kept evolving.

DS: Right. The Ring Lardner story, “Haircut,” he added in later. He used to open with the Wodehouse, and he closes with that now. But through all of these changes, its reason for being has remained the same: it’s a tribute and a thank you to his parents.

TS: Do you see this as an autobiographical solo show?

DS: Well, it’s interesting because the actual stories that he was read to as a kid and that he reads to his parents during the end of their lives are 80% of the evening, and those stories really have nothing to do with his parents except for the fact that they were instrumental in his life as an actor.

TS: I didn’t know anything about Arthur Lithgow, his father. I didn’t know John was part of an acting dynasty.

DS: I actually remember meeting his father at a Theatre Communications Group (TCG) conference back in the late 1970s. He was a very elegant man, though I never saw him act and I never saw a production that he directed. He was a beloved figure in TCG and that whole beginning of the regional theatre world. He was part of all of that.

TS: Let’s talk a bit about directing solo shows because I know you’ve also directed Charlayne Woodard’s one-woman pieces. What are the challenges in directing solo shows? What do you appreciate about that form of theatre?

DS: If it works, it is thrilling. One of the things I loved about working with Charlayne and also John is simply the risk factor of walking out on stage and saying I’m going to entertain you for the next two hours. It takes extraordinary courage as well as the talent to be able to embody so many different characters as Charlayne does in her work and as John does in Stories By Heart. It’s dizzying. When John does the Wodehouse story, he has to keep all these balls in the air with all of these characters on stage at the same time. You begin to really believe you’re seeing all these people. That’s a kind of wonderful magic trick. When you do a one-person show, you need to have somebody who has the kind of huge range that John does. You feel his goodness and his good nature; that’s not fake.

TS: Solo shows seem to showcase the protean aspects of a performer. What I understand about solo shows is that it’s difficult because your acting partner is the audience and they don’t show up until the first preview. Is that true?

DS: Yes, that’s very true. As a director, you become the partner. There’s a kind of energy in John that’s very similar to Charlayne’s; it’s a kind of shaping energy. The performers have to have all these impulses, and your role as director is more one of channeling that energy than it is producing it. That person has to come with that energy and desire; it takes a lot of chutzpah.

Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: In his show, John talks about why human beings have a fundamental need for stories. I think you could talk about this idea because you’ve spent your life telling stories.

DS: Part of it is this great desire to make sense of the world. Narrative is the only way you can do that. The beginning, middle, and end of a story is a way of summing up our existence. I sense this is very true for John and this play. It’s a way for him to come to terms with his parents. One of the things John talks about at the beginning of his show is his father, who would direct and perform in different Shakespeare plays every night of the week in his company. The amount of energy that it takes to do that is extraordinary. You can see that same energy in John on stage in everything he does, certainly in this piece. He’s inexhaustible. The question is not so much do we need stories, but do the stories themselves keep us alive? Give us heart or the courage to live? He never states this boldly in the piece, but it’s there.

TS: I’m also curious if you think that this is something that we learn from childhood when our parents read to us?

DS: I think that’s true certainly. My father had a book of Russian folk tales that had been translated by Arthur Ransome. It was a little slender black book, and it used to terrify us. So, my father would bring this thing out and all five of us would gather around. It was an odd moment because there was such a tenderness in the gathering of all the children around my father as he would read. For me, it was one of the most weirdly sensual experiences as I got to be in my father’s lap and at the same time the stories always ended with people being put in sacks and thrown in the river. Awful things like that. We just obviously hung on every word and they were terrifying, but those were some of the closest and most tender moments that I remember with my father as a child.

TS: Was he a good reader?

DS: Yes, he was a good reader, and you could hear his appreciation of the writing as he read. You could hear him being drawn in, and I think that was important. It wasn’t as though he was an actor in any way. You could just hear his love for the words.


Lithgow as King Lear

TS: I wanted to ask about you and John collaborating together -- is this the fourth time you have worked together?

DS: I think so. We did The Retreat from Moscow, The Columnist, then King Lear, and a fundraiser for the Public Theater in the park where John sang “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General” made up to look like General Flynn. With appropriate changes to the lyrics. It was hilarious.

TS: Can you talk about working with an actor like John on multiple projects? What makes you want to work with certain actors again?

DS: First of all, if there’s no trust, you won’t work with same theatre actors over time. There’s usually a lack of vanity not just on the actor’s part, but on the director’s part also. Actors have to be honest with themselves, and the director depends on that. Both actor and director have to be aware of the fact that you’re going to be honest with one another and kind at the same time. I think it’s easy to develop relationships that are ongoing between a director and the actor, and I have a lot of relationships with actors that way. John is one of them. You always hear people talk about the shorthand that actors and directors develop, and I think that’s also true. You don’t have to say much because you share similar views of the world and how people behave in it.

TS: What do you personally make of the Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse stories? Are you a fan of both writers?

DS: I would say that I like Lardner and certainly “Haircut” is a brilliant piece of writing. One of his very best pieces. And Wodehouse and all of those Uncle Fred stories are really hilarious. It’s almost Monty Python-esque. You can really see the lineage there. It’s so completely mad.

TS: “Haircut” is told from a singular voice, and you get a sense of the homogeneity of that town and the people living there. It seems like it speaks to the times we are living in.

DS: You’re right that it does speak to our time. There’s a real sense of enveloping darkness in that piece that is also very surprising. The wonderful thing is that the barber doesn’t understand the consequences. He doesn’t quite understand the story he’s telling. It’s not that he’s an unreliable narrator, just a naive one. Which is a wonderful technique I feel.

Photo By Joan Marcus

TS: I also love that in the Wodehouse piece, he’s showcasing a charming criminal. Both stories deal with this criminal element.

DS: That’s very true.

TS: I’ve always thought that Americans appreciate a conman -- they love stories about people who get away with murder.

DS: Of course, in the Wodehouse piece it’s basically about adventurousness. Uncle Fred just loves to make trouble and get himself into situations that he has to try to find outrageous ways to get out of.

TS: What else is coming up for you as director?

DS: I’m directing Shaw’s Saint Joan at Manhattan Theatre Club. That’s the big thing I’m working on right now -- trying to put all that together. Condola Rashad is playing Saint Joan. I saw her in A Doll’s House, Part 2, and I thought, there she is -- there’s Saint Joan.

John Lithgow: Stories By Heart opened at The American Airlines Theatre on January 11, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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