NEW YORK — In the delightful “John Lithgow: Stories by Heart,” an actor known for great intelligence and range devotes two hours on a Broadway stage to advancing that reputation. Enacting with consummate skill and physical grace a pair of short stories by Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse, Lithgow accomplishes the mission in handy fashion.
The production, which had its official opening Thursday night at the American Airlines Theater, offers new vigor for a form that many actors would like to master but few manage to successfully conquer: the one-person show. Under Dan Sullivan’s adroit direction, Lithgow does. He uses the occasion to reflect warmly on the influence on him of his theater-director father, Arthur, whose bedtime readings to him and his siblings were from the very book of short stories Lithgow relies on enrichingly here.
If I were to compare this evening with others in the genre — and I’ve sampled dozens and dozens over the decades — Lithgow’s would land somewhere in the top dozen. That fact led me to some further reflections of my own, on the best evenings of these kinds, solo ventures created and enacted by the authors, in shows tailored to their personalities and peculiar performance styles. Here then, inspired by Lithgow’s worthy exertions, the top-10 spoken-word soloists I’ve ever experienced:
Anna Deavere Smith. The most gifted social observer-storyteller of our time. A nonpareil impressionist, Smith over the years has perfected a formula that combines journalism, activism and dramatic monologue. The result in such pieces as “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities” and, most recently, “Notes From the Field” has been a series of unforgettable contributions to the national conversation about racism, poverty and crime.
Hal Holbrook. An actor who dreamed up not just a great performance, but also a genre. The success of “Mark Twain Tonight!” — a role Holbrook embarked on in 1954 and would reprise again and again over more than half a century — got other actors, and playwrights, thinking about the other notables from the arts and politics who might glow in the follow-spot. Thus followed Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson and James Whitmore as Harry Truman and Laurence Fishburne as Thurgood Marshall and on and on.
Spalding Gray. This mesmerizing maestro of navel-gazing neurosis created a confessional style that has been widely mimicked but rarely surpassed. Gray, who killed himself in 2004, called himself a poetic journalist, but his beat was highly specialized: his own life, a subject he riffed on in more than a dozen beautifully crafted monologues. Seated on a stage behind a pine desk, with a spiral notebook open in front of him, Gray spun evocative stories about sometimes mundane topics — a trip to a ski slope, for example. But it was for “Swimming to Cambodia,” a pair of shows built around his experience as an actor in the movie “The Killing Fields,” and themselves were turned into a successful film, that he earned him his widest acclaim.
Dame Edna Everage (a.k.a. Barry Humphries). Lavender wig. Nightmarishly bedazzled gown. Spectacles modeled on the wings of a ’59 Caddy. In the guise of a gossip-spewing ex-homemaker from Melbourne, the Australian Humphries has forged in multiple touring and Broadway shows such a pleasurable pact with audiences that his hardcore followers cannot be described as anything less than rabid. Dame Edna’s trademark countenance, a kind of gleefully outrageous mischievousness, invites audiences to be her co-conspirators — and occasionally, her good-natured victims — in shows that take you happily and gratefully out of yourself.
Lily Tomlin. It was in Broadway’s then-called Plymouth Theatre in 1985 that my affection for Tomlin deepened into a profound appreciation of her stage artistry. “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” written by Jane Wagner, was a two-act test of the limits of Tomlin’s protean gifts, expressed through a gallery of characters — by turns satirical, bawdy, bitter, sentimental — who also somehow revealed the political zeitgeist of the time. Though Tomlin stays eternally current (at the moment through a Netflix sitcom with Jane Fonda, “Grace and Frankie”), I miss the days when she was regularly playing everybody at once.
Lypsinka (a.k.a. John Epperson). There’s nothing like (a guy playing) a dame. To be more specific: a guy playing the movie dames of another time, the Joan Crawfords, the Bette Davises, the Lana Turners. These are all sweet spots for Epperson, known to his admirers as Lypsinka, she who appears before us impeccably glamorous, perfectly coifed, sultry and mysterious. Using the bygone stars’ own voices and sound bites, Lypsinka is at once a satirist and a tribute artist, affectionately sending up the hyperdramatic femininity enshrined in another age.
John Leguizamo. A Hall-of-Famer for sure, by dint of a succession of celebrated Broadway shows with material enriched by his summoning of Latino lives: “Freak” (1998), “Sexaholix” (2001), “Ghetto Klown” (2011) and his latest, the highly entertaining “Latin History for Morons,” which started last spring at the Public Theater and moved to Broadway in the fall. His recipe is the closest among the artists mentioned here to traditional standup, drawing on the people and places he knew growing up in a New York family with roots in Latin America and the Middle East. The earthiness and warmth he stirs into his comedy set him eternally apart from other wiseacre self-narrators.
Dael Orlandersmith. The flip side of Leguizamo may be Orlandersmith, whose city music slips out in more somber chords. (She’s a performer, as I once described her, with “antennae sensitively attuned to life’s sting.”) There are funny moments in her monologues, pieces such as “Monster,” the story of an exceptional child trying to survive in a broken family, or “Stoop Stories,” about the range of singular characters of the Harlem she’s known. What stays with you most powerfully, though, is her ability to pack experiences of cruelty and heartbreak into evenings of lyrical dynamism.
Taylor Mac. Despite the backup singers, the orchestra and even the 246 American songs of “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” the fabulously outfitted Mac qualifies for this essentially nonmusical list on the basis of this extraordinary show. And that’s because of the audacious scale and effect of the narrative he constructs. Over the course of eight three-hour segments, the veteran solo artist and playwright seeks not just to entertain, but also to teach; the research he has done and the wit with which he reveals it to us takes him beyond cabaret and into some new form of performance. And in March, he arrives at the Kennedy Center with an abridged, three-hour version of the extravaganza he unveiled in 2016 at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse.
Mike Daisey. Like Spalding Gray before him, Daisey does his tale-spinning from a seat on the stage, turning the pages of scribbled notes and elegantly stitching disparate threads into vivid critiques. But he’s less introspective than Gray; his lens is turned outward, on the nation’s values. In “American Utopias,” he explored the intertwining folkways of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the Burning Man Festival and the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Lower Manhattan. In “The Last Cargo Cult,” he found a way to examine American materialism through a visit to a religious group in the South Seas that worshiped money. He took tremendous heat for portions of an investigatory piece about Apple, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” that he later confessed were made up. But I remain wistful even about that show — the writing was that good.
Lithgow’s show, meanwhile, plainly plays to his particular strength — crisp, beautifully contoured portraiture — as he dives into verbatim dramatizations of two stories: Lardner’s “Haircut,” about a naive Midwestern barber recounting the exploits of a man far more malicious than he understands, and Wodehouse’s madcap “Uncle Fred Flits By.” It’s gratifying to watch this actor make his formidable application to this exclusive theatrical club.
John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, written and performed by Lithgow. Directed by Dan Sullivan. About two hours. $39-$139. Through March 4 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. Call 212-719-1300 or visit roundabouttheatre.org.