From Haircut to Hair

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Let’s take a New Year’s break from my usual warnings about the temptations and perils of presenting solo shows in LA’s bigger theaters. Stories by Heart, John Lithgow’s solo show at the Mark Taper Forum, is irresistible.

John Lithgow in STORIES BY HEART. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

It helps that Lithgow is a big actor — not only in height but also in the size of his gestures. It would be interesting to see him dial his performance down in a much smaller house, but only after experiencing the thrill of seeing him dial it up at the Taper.

He tells three main stories. One of them is deeply personal and somewhat sentimental — in a good way, consisting of sporadic autobiographical tidbits about his grandmother and his parents, his own youth, and his middle-aged attempts to assist his aged parents.

The others ostensibly aren’t about the storyteller at all — P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” from 1935, and Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” from 1925 — and they banish nearly every trace of sentimentality. But they’re connected to the autobiographical material, because they were included in a book from which Lithgow’s family told stories, as he grew up (and, in the case of “Haircut,” Lithgow points out parallels between Lardner’s small-town culture in Michigan and Lithgow’s childhood across the border, in small-town Ohio).

Lithgow also kicks off the second act with a brief, rousing performance of a broadly humorous poem involving adultery and murder.

John Lithgow in “Uncle Fred Flits By” during STORIES BY HEART. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

All the primary components of Stories by Heart offer reflections on performance and artifice, but with very different conclusions. Lithgow’s father was a man of the theater, and his son of course followed in his footsteps; as he discusses his family, Lithgow offers a heartwarming endorsement of the emotional benefits of this kind of life. “Uncle Fred Flits By” is about an audacious Brit who barges into a stranger’s house and pretends to be someone else — and this, too, makes pretense seem like great fun for the man, even if it’s a source of aggravation for other characters. In “Haircut,” on the other hand, Lardner traces the point at which pretense and performance turn from fun into tragedy.

In other words, a coherent theme emerges out of the seemingly different strands within Stories by Heart, lending the script greater weight than you might expect.

The performance itself is protean — from Lithgow’s pre-show announcement about electronic devices through the authenticity of his evocation of own memories, and on through the staggering enactment of 10 British roles in “Uncle Fred” and the subtler performance of a barber in “Haircut”, which requires him to mime an entire haircut while he tells the story.

In an earlier post, before I knew much about Lithgow’s show, I expressed a feeble hope that he might venture at least a little into stories about his own life in LA — which would automatically make Stories by Heart more reflective of LA than just about anything else on this year’s Center Theatre Group season. He does nothing of the kind (and sorry, but I couldn’t help but notice that a typo in his program bio reveals that he “lives in Los Angles”). Still, I wouldn’t want anything to intrude on the intricate framework of Stories by Heart. Perhaps we can look forward to hearing more about LA in some future Lithgow solo.

John Lithgow in “Haircut” during STORIES BY HEART. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Lithgow’s show ends in a Midwestern barber shop, with the unseen customer being asked if he wants his hair combed wet or dry? The next night after I saw Lithgow, I found myself at the Pantages, again watching Hair, in which the characters are so proud of their long locks and rebellious attitudes that they would drive any Midwestern barber crazy.

The two shows are also diametrically different in just about every other aspect. Hair is big, flashy and loud, with plenty of actors in the aisles and, at the end, audience members on stage. The closest that Stories by Heart gets to nudity is when Lithgow untucks his white shirt and converts it into a barber’s smock; Hair, of course, is famous in part for its big bare-everything scene.

Many of the New York critics went ga-ga over this particular Hair. It opened as part of the Public Theater’s Central Park season, which must have seemed relatively authentic, then moved to a triumphant run on Broadway. Here, it’s in LA’s equivalent of a very big Broadway house, the Pantages, which doesn’t strike me as the right fit. I preferred it in the far scruffier and smaller confines of LA’s Met Theatre, where I saw my last revival. The Met is more like the kind of place where hippies might have hung out in the late ’60s.

HAIR at the Pantages Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Then again, I suspect that part of the New York critical reaction was due to the relative lack of revivals of most big musicals in New York, compared to LA, where shows are cheaper to revive for limited runs. I’ve lost count of how many Hairs I’ve seen, and it’s more difficult to get into its groove repeatedly than it is if you’re a Hair newbie. It’s a pageant more than a play; pageants often wear out their welcome over the years.

Hair’s narrative flaws are more pronounced and its period-piece elements more dated with each new revival. For example, I’m thinking of a scene in which Sheila returns from a DC demonstration to give her dearest Berger a gaudy yellow shirt. I’ve never been able to figure out why she would have picked such a retro gift. Does she see any other hippies wearing gaudy polyester garb?

If you’ve never experienced Hair, it’s probably a head trip to see it, listen to it and imagine how current it must have seemed when it opened in the late ’60s. But was it really more current than, say, Avenue Q was in the last decade? Its book is definitely more of a mind-blowing mess than that of Avenue Q.

Right now, in LA in 2011, I’ll take “Haircut” over Hair.

Stories by Heart, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Music Center, LA. Tues-Fri, 8 pm; Sat, 2:30 and 8 pm; Sun, 1 and 6:30 pm. Student performances only on Jan. 25 and 26. Closes Feb. 13. 213-628-2772.

Hair, Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Hollywood. Tues-Fri, 8 pm; Sat, 2 and 8 pm; Sun, 1 and 6:30 pm. Closes Jan. 23. 800-982-2787.

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.