Back in 1979, I happened to catch a charming, thought-provoking little play performed proscenium-style at Circle in the Square in New York City. Titled Spokesong, or: The Common Wheel and authored by a poet from Northern Ireland named Stewart Parker, it tells the story of a man named Frank who owns a bicycle shop in Belfast during the time of the Troubles. Frank is an idealist with friends on both sides of the conflict, and sees the bicycle as a vehicle for peace and for the rejuvenation of a city ground down by poverty, despair, urban squalor and sectarian violence.
Spokesong only ran for a couple of months, but the actor who portrayed Frank must’ve taken his preparation for the role quite seriously, because afterwards I would occasionally spot him tooling around Central Park on his bike, his absurdly long legs pumping away. That was right around the time that his first big movie role – as the character based on Michael Bennett in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz – was hitting the screens. Three years later John Lithgow was earning his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as the transsexual Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp, and a second one a year after that as Sam Burns in Terms of Endearment. He had already copped his first Tony, for The Changing Room, in 1973, and would go on to collect another one in 2002 for Sweet Smell of Success.
Though I may always visualize him straddling a bicycle, everyone seems to have his or her own classic John Lithgow role. He told Bill Moyers that his personal favorite was his reprise of the white-knuckled airline passenger in the movie version of The Twilight Zone – the role originated in the TV series by William Shatner. He starred as the Dad who befriends a Sasquatch in Harry and the Hendersons. He does Campbell’s Soup commercials, lots of kids’ music albums and voiceovers. He’s probably most widely known as the alien High Commander Dick Solomon in the long-running NBC series 3rd Rock from the Sun, but little kids know him as the voice of the nasty Lord Farquaad in the Shrek movies.
Indeed, Lithgow does a great bad guy, from the uptight preacher who hates rock ‘n’ roll in the original Footloose to the title character’s chilling nemesis, serial killer Arthur Mitchell, in the Showtime series Dexter – a role that won him both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. More recently, he has been heard playing an upper-class twit in love with an Occupy Wall Street protestor on A Prairie Home Companion and doing a dramatic reading of a Newt Gingrich press release on The Colbert Report.
Lithgow’s most recent role – a supporting part in This Is 40 – is now showing in a theatre near you. But if you’re dubious about the idea of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up needing a sequel, you might be better off holding out for something a bit classier starring this supremely versatile actor at the Rosendale Theatre.
On Sunday, January 27, as part of its ongoing series of high-definition rebroadcasts of live productions from the National Theatre from London, Rosendale will be screening Arthur Wing Pinero’s Victorian farce The Magistrate, directed by Olivier Award-winner Timothy Sheader. Lithgow has been getting raves from the London press for his performance in the lead role of Posket, an amiable magistrate duped into marriage by a woman (Nancy Carroll) pretending to be much younger than she actually is.
The January 27 filmed performance will be a matinee, beginning at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $12 general admission, $10 for Rosendale Theatre Collective members, and can be purchased at the box office on the day of the screening or online at https://rosendaletheatre.org in advance. If you’ve never seen John Lithgow onstage, you’ve missed a treat, so don’t let this local opportunity pass you by!
The Magistrate starring John Lithgow, Live in HD from the National Theatre, Sunday, January 27, 2 p.m., $12/$10, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale, (845) 658-8989, https://rosendaletheatre.org.