For years now, the hardworking staff has expressed not fulsome (which means “effusive, excessive, or insincere praise”) but full-throated admiration for the work of Ring Lardner, who is either a minor major 20th century American writer or a major minor 20th century American writer, depending on how you hold him up to the light.
Regardless, John Lithgow’s current one-man Broadway production, Stories by Heart, revolves around two short stories, one of them by Lardner, along with Lithgow’s reminiscences of his father, who read the stories to him as a child.
First up is Lardner’s “Haircut,” as Jesse Green’s New York Times review notes.
Let Me Tell You A Story
Check, check,” goes the razor. “Scha, scha, scha,” goes the strop.
But there is no razor; there is no strop.
The only thing making noise onstage during John Lithgow’s “Stories by Heart,” which opened Thursday evening at the American Airlines Theater, is Mr. Lithgow himself. Reciting Ring Lardner’s 1925 short story “Haircut,” set in a small-town barbershop in the Midwest, he brings an anthropologist’s specificity (and a Foley artist’s ingenuity) to every swoop of the apron and slap of the pomade that accompanies the main character’s monologue.
Green goes on to say, “the two stories that Mr. Lithgow recites — “Haircut” in the first act and P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” in the second — are superb, outlandish and, in very different ways, hair-raising.” He further describes the former as “a scathing indictment of good-old-boy-ism: the barely civilized tradition of men playing tricks on one another and arranging nasty traps (including marriage) for women.”
That’s all in the Lardner, but Mr. Lithgow adds another emotional channel by showing us how the barber, himself a good old boy, is implicated in the nastiness he pretends only to describe. An astonishing collection of laughs — whinnies, giggles, squeals, snorts, heaves — gradually colors the narrative, until this seemingly harmless man becomes, in effect, not just a witness to savagery, but also an accessory.
Over at the Wall Street Journal, theater critic Terry Teachout says this about Lithgow’s rendition of the Lardner story.
Mr. Lithgow is a paradox, a serious actor with a funny face whose energy is comic. Hence he was born to perform “Haircut,” a cinder-black vignette of small-town life told by a deceptively cheerful barber who is in truth a walking pustule of malice. Lardner’s once-celebrated short stories are no longer widely read, but watching Mr. Lithgow bring “Haircut” to suppurating life made me want to run right out and hunt down a copy of his “How to Write Short Stories—With Samples.”
(We’re lucky enough to have a 1924 version of that cleverly named collection, which, if memory serves us, was the worst-selling book of Ring Lardner’s publishing career.)
As it happens, Lardner also wrote The Big Town: How I and the Mrs. Go to New York to See Life and Get Katie a Husband.
Nice to see he’s made it back.