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Mark Lewis

Larger Than Life

A memoir by John Lithgow.

How lovely it might be to attend a dinner party hosted by John Lithgow.

As I read Drama: An Actor's Education, Lithgow's autobiography, I could easily discern his distinctive cadences and puckish personality (if, indeed, it is possible to describe a 6'4'' individual as "puckish"). As a breezy account of an extraordinary career in theater, film, and television, the book is top-notch.

"Theatrical" may be the best way to describe it. I had a genuine "Aha!" moment when, in reading the acknowledgements, I discovered that its writing was actually antecedent to a one-man show Lithgow developed and performed, first at various venues around the country, and finally at Lincoln Center in 2008.

Knowing that much of the book was meant to work as a script, one better understands its structure. The rising action of each chapter often pays off with lines reminiscent of one of the well-crafted sitcoms for which Lithgow is known by most who watch television. This style works best when he is dishing a theater story. ("A moment of history? Of course! It was the last time Meryl Streep would have to audition for anything.") The technique is less effective when he is punctuating the account of a difficult-to-capture event or era. ("We are capable of anything. A caustic three-word phrase barked out in an empty ice-house on the campus of The Stockbridge School was my first and most startling demonstration of that truth.") And it is perhaps least successful when he is working to create a through-line for the book by summarizing its central relationship, that between the author and his father, theatrical producer and director Arthur Lithgow. ("Was it Oedipal pigheadedness? Did I have too high an opinion of my own abilities? Too low an opinion of my father's? Whatever the reason, I never worked for him again.") Lights fade.

This is not to say that the stories of the actor's dad, generously leavening the book, are not occasionally illuminating and consistently entertaining. (Who wouldn't be fascinated ...

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