Isaiah Sheffer and Leonard Nimoy on stage at the Getty Center

Isaiah Sheffer and Leonard Nimoy on stage at the Getty Center

It’s one thing to see a writer read her own work, but when someone else gets their hands on it, the fluid dynamic between story and storyteller is revealed. How much is the reader outside of the story, telling it to an audience of listeners? Can an actor inhabit the whole story as if the narration is a role? Is there a character inside the story that he might slip into?

Some answers lie in the May 1 performance of Selected Shorts at the Getty Center. Selected Shorts pairs short stories with actors, who read, alone, on a simple stage. Host Isiah Sheffer, of New York’s Symphony Space, welcomed Leonard Nimoy, Ed Asner, Fionnula Flanagan, and Jacqueline Kim as each read a story on the theme “At Home.”

Leonard Nimoy read “Porte-Cochere,” a story by Peter Taylor published in 1946 in The New Yorker. In it, an aging father listens to his adult children from his upstairs study. Not able to hear them clearly, his thoughts cycle from imagined slights to boastful challenges and into his own deep past. Once formidable, now diminished, he is losing his capacities—all but the ability to wound, which he does with terrible pleasure. Like many excellent stories, it was unsettling, and Nimoy read with quiet care, knowing when and how to strike. Dressed in black, his graying hair cropped short, he smiled warmly and bowed as he finished, as if to remind the audience that he was not the cold man in the story he’d just told. Immediately after, during intermission, I heard rumblings that the story had upset some listeners—which, as far as I’m concerned, is a good thing.

Following the break, Fionnula Flanagan, a veteran of Selected Shorts and looking chicer than her character Eloise on “Lost,” performed as a demonstrative storyteller, creating a scene, using her hands to describe the motions of the characters in the story “Household” by Yasunari Kawabata. The Japanese author, known for his sophisticated stories, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

Ed Asner, who came next, had a noticeably different approach; he read “Plumbing,” an early story by John Updike. Told in the first person, it follows the thoughts of a man about the places he has lived. “Our house forgot us in a day,” the man says in the story; by contrast, the man cannot forget his actions in those places, no matter that he has physically moved on. Wearing a dark suit and sporting a bright red tie, Asner stood at the microphone, hands in his pockets, reading the story as if the words were thoughts that had just popped into his mind. Although Updike had written the story as a relatively young man, its meditations on aging took on a deeper tone when read by Asner, now 80 and white-haired.

To my ear, it is the stories that reach deep enough to resonate emotionally—even if that emotion is uncomfortable—that resonate best. Sometimes a lighter story, like the one read by Jacqueline Kim, whose career has ranged from Xena: Warrior Princess to lead roles in Electra and The Seagull on stage—“Not Quite Home Alone” by Krista McGruder—doesn’t quite take hold.

You can hear Selected Shorts via podcast weekly, and this weekend’s readings will be yours to enjoy online by the fall. But Selected Shorts comes to the Getty only once a year. Look for it again on March 26 and 27, 2011.