Few human qualities pack the potency of being able to invent, tell, and believe stories. Along with the opposable thumb, it’s one of the things that distinguish us from the lower beasts. Our religions are based on stories. Our identities are the result of the narratives we tell about — and to — ourselves. Belief in stories can be so powerful that it sometimes cannot be shaken even in the presence of contradicting facts. Story is also the central element in literature and theater, where we often turn to make sense of our existence.
This premise has seldom been more elegantly demonstrated than in John Lithgow’s one-man show “Stories by Heart” now at Roundabout. Using just words — and enough performance art to bring the stories to life — Lithgow draws his audience in and takes them on a wonderful journey through three stories. Two of the stories are classic short stories — “Haircut,” a 1925 tale by Ring Lardner and the 1935 P.G. Wodehouse comedy “Uncle Fred Flits By” — but the third story is about Lithgow himself and his relationship to these stories and, in a larger sense, to his family.
He starts with a large book of short stories, his only prop, and talks about how his family would read the stories together as his theatrical father brought them to life. Later in life, Lithgow the younger would become the narrator in the face of that too-often inevitable role reversal where an adult child becomes the caretaker of declining parents. The near universality of that experience gives the show its quiet poignancy and, like Roz Chast’s wonderful book about her dying parents, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” is both an acknowledgement of looming loss and a balm that lets us know we are not alone.
Coming from a family that regularly read aloud to one another from Dickens, Shakespeare, and some of the same short stories Lithgow references, such as the perennially scary “The Monkey’s Paw,” Lithgow’s tale reminded me of how my own love of literature grew — and how favorite stories often revisited became part of our family’s identity.
Of course, none of us had anywhere remotely near the storytelling skill of Lithgow. Under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, Lithgow brings the two short stories to life with specificity and verve, making each character — and even each sound effect — live in his telling. There is a wonderful economy in Lithgow’s performance that allows each story to expand and delight. Of course, there’s the power of nostalgia — another uniquely human trait. I might have been back on my parents’ porch with my siblings on a summer night following the adventures of Oliver Twist. Instead, I was in a theater full of people paying rapt attention to a man reciting words. But then, it wasn’t just words. It was story, and that’s what connected us all.
“The Thing with Feathers,” now at the Barrow Group, is an engaging psychological thriller nicely crafted, for the most part, by Scott Organ and tautly delivered by a strong cast of four under the direction of Seth Barrish. Like the best thrillers, there’s real tension and suspense, and though the scale is small, it delivers a satisfying evening’s diversion.
The play opens with teenager Anna sitting on her bed talking to a man on the Internet. Already, we know something isn’t right. Anna lives with her mother Beth, a divorcée about to remarry. Of course, Anna is struggling to establish her own identity. When the disembodied man says he loves her, well, what teenager doesn’t want to hear that? Especially when it comes from a sensitive fellow who quotes Emily Dickinson. Still, this scene goes on too long, and it feels like the play is going to bog down into an angst-ridden family drama. Fortunately, playwright Organ is better than that, and as things get rolling the plot twists and revelations come along apace.
To say more about the plot would spoil the fun, but the play is noteworthy because of how well the cast works together and the easy, fluid naturalism they find to bring the characters to life. Alexa Shae Niziak is wonderful as Anna. Robert Manning, Jr., is grounded and believable as Tim, a local cop about to marry Beth. DeAnna Lenhart gives a quiet and nuanced performance as Beth and is quite moving in her final scene. Zachary Booth as Eric, the disembodied voice who subsequently travels 900 miles to see Anna, is truly outstanding. Both charming and frightening, he never tips his hand as the character is revealed and has a real star quality that makes him consistently interesting.
Perhaps only next to comedy, thrillers aren’t easy to bring off. Hopefully this short run isn’t the last flight for “The Thing With Feathers.”
“Cruel Intentions: The Musical” has no idea what it wants to be. Does it want to be camp? Is it struggling to be satire? The show is based on an obscure, mediocre movie from 1999 that is a re-telling of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” set in a wealthy high school to a score of ‘90s pop hits from Christina Aguilera, REM, NSYNC, and others. Performed on a bare stage in the bar at Le Poisson Rouge, this could be the perfect opportunity for over-the-top hilarity that invites the audience to join the company in sending up this rotten movie, the kind of treatment “Valley of the Dolls” got two decades ago. Instead, this is a more or less earnest recreation of the movie, punctuated with songs that are forced into the story without any particular narrative reason. The show cries out for a point of view or a sense of the ridiculous, but that escapes co-creators Jordan Ross and Lindsey Rosin, who have turned a dull movie into an incoherent mess. It’s just plain ghastly.
With non-existent direction, inept choreography by Jennifer Weber, and the worst sound mixing you can find in New York right now, the piece flails about on the stage as the truncated scenes and belted songs assault the audience. The company does the best they can, and there’s some real talent being wasted in this. Notably, Constantine Rousouli as Sebastian Valmont has a strong voice and presence and, despite some over-singing at the performance I endured, has the makings of a strong leading man. Similarly, Carrie St. Louis as Annette Hargrove, the girl Valmont and his stepsister, Kathryn Merteuil, try to ruin, has an impressive voice that she uses to good effect in the pop songs. Lauren Zakrin as Merteuil is sexy evil and another strong singer. They, and the rest of the company, deserve better. I hope they find it soon.
JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART | American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. | Through Mar. 4: Tue.-Sat. at 7 p.m. through Feb. 2; then, Tue-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $39-$149 at roundabout
THE THING WITH FEATHERS | Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre, 312 W. 36th St. | Through Feb. 10: Mon., Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 7 p.m. 25-$35 at barrowgroup.org/thing-feathers-scott-organ or 866-811-4111 | Two hrs., with intermission
CRUEL INTENTIONS: THE MUSICAL | Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St. btwn. Sullivan & Thompson Sts. | Through Mar. 16: Mon. at 7 p.m.; Sat. at 5 & 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 & 7 p.m. | $39-$109 at cruelmusic
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