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A Catcher of the Wry : John Ford Noonan is still fielding emotions to help him develop insight into characters that populate his plays

March 19, 1989|JANICE ARKATOV

It's unlikely that John Ford Noonan will ever be mistaken for a wallflower.

"I've had my share of difficulties in bars and places," the playwright said. "I'm like 6-foot-4, 240 pounds. I was full grown at 14. I used to protect people. If we'd go to a football game in a strange town and eight guys wanted to fight eight of us, I had to size it up real fast cause I was gonna take all the heat. I could probably take three or four kids our age and hurt 'em. I always had that ability--to tell who's for real and who's lipping."

On sight, "playwright" probably isn't the first word you'd associate with Noonan. He wears a red beret, an "Adventures in Babysitting" bowling jacket (he had an acting role in the movie) and red lace-up booties. He talks fast--one moment revelatory and real, the next fielding a question about his family by muttering, "Just say I have a lotta children." He claims to have spent time as a dockhand, rock 'n' roll dancer, professional boxer, accountant, construction worker, stockbroker, university lecturer, house painter and basketball coach.

Multiple guises aside, Noonan is a playwright, best known for his two-character paean to female bonding "A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talkin' " (1980). And it is to writing that he feels he brings a special intuition about people.

"I'm like a catcher," said Noonan, who was born in Connecticut and attended Brown University. "You catch what's coming at you: people and feelings. Then you let 'em gestate. They need to be told what to do--then I start to let 'em go. A lot of the things I write, I can imagine these people five years ahead, see the trouble coming. They're just accidents waiting to happen. And it gets really dramatic. When characters are neutral, I can't stand it. I don't know where they're at. I feel comfortable with characters who are really in pain, who want something--and I can feel it. It's the same with people."

His latest effort is "My Daddy's Serious American Gift," the story of an 11-year-old girl trying to hold her family together. "The mother supports them, the father has artistic aspirations--and he freebases a lot of cocaine," Noonan said. "This child has an incredible burden to carry: to cool off the mother and slow down the father."

(In its Feb. 16-April 9 run at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood, the play stars Richard Jordan, Kathryn Dowling, Robin Lynn Heath, Richard Green, Zachary Rosencrantz and Marcia Cross.)

"As a child, I did a lot of parenting," Noonan, 45, said of the play's theme. "You take over, guide them. You say: 'Dad, Mom's a little nervous. Tell her she looks great.' My folks were wonderful people. But parenting is a real gift, and a lot of people don't have it. I think my father had this incredible image about how parenting should go. He was gonna be like Jimmy Stewart or someone from a movie. He had a great need to do something he had no talent for. It was awkward for him to talk, painful for him to discipline. Being head of the household was very uncomfortable."

Touching those human soft spots is what the writer--who shakes off any inspection of the play's parallels with his own life--enjoys doing in his work.

"If you just let people alone, they do the most amazing things. A lot of times we're really predictable in our lives. It's like we're hoping for excitement but it's too scary, so we avoid it. I often think that life and drama are reversed. In our lives, we do anything to avoid the kind of conflict a play has to have. You know: I don't bring home anybody from college who's gonna upset my parents. Blanche never dares go to where Stella and Stanley live. So if you're scared or confused about something, you can sort of experience it by writing about it."

But Noonan doesn't stop there. Since the show opened, he's been there every night: watching, listening and laughing. "He's studying it to learn about his play," said Richard Jordan, who plays the self-destructive father. Jordan, who's known the playwright for years, is enjoying the close contact and has even incorporated Noonan's speech patterns into his role. "Being around him I tried out his rhythms--you know, those fast, staccato bursts he does. But there's also an outer rhythm which is much slower.

"He also chooses opposites emotionally," the actor continued. "A line is joyful, but he'll deliver it deadly serious. I adore him; I like his mystery. This is not a perfect play--but there are elements that are startling, soaring, magnificent, poetry. I call him up and ask for things all the time: 'John, I need an aria here. It needs to go deeper.' Sometimes he'd sit in at rehearsal and shout new lines at us."

Jeff Seymour, artistic director of the Gnu Theatre in North Hollywood, is another Noonan fan.

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