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STAGE REVIEW : A ‘Gift’ With a Few Lines Attached

Times Theater Writer

John Ford Noonan says he won’t talk about his years of chemical addiction, but he’s written a play that would seem to speak for him.

The play is “My Daddy’s Serious American Gift,” which opened at the Tiffany over the weekend, and it’s moot whether this “Serious Gift” is the central character’s talent or his addiction to cocaine.

Welcome to the dysfunctional American family. Whatever portion of this piece comes from Noonan’s personal experience is ultimately immaterial. He has created a credible addict in Jason Tickner (Richard Jordan), a man who has pursued too many things in life without completing any. He has created a less credible play.

Jason’s a married man, supported by an understanding wife, Sarah (Kathryn Dowling), who is, however, beginning to lose patience--and by a daughter, Charlie (Robin Lynn Heath), who has become a parent to her parents.

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From there the plot thickens and boils over, sometimes believably, sometimes not. There is a neighbor, Blake Dupre (Richard Green), a wealthy, unattached, good-looking lawyer who’s interested in Jason’s wife and in producing the play Jason is promising to finish; there is Blake’s stuffy son Beanbag (Zachary Rosencrantz), a chip off the old yuppie block--and there is Kendall Carter (Marcia Cross), the daytime soap star who wants the lead in Jason’s play and keeps him supplied with coke and other gratifications to get him to say yes.

“My Daddy’s Serious American Gift” follows an intricate structural pattern that makes us note from time to time that we are looking at a replay within a play whose outcome is still to come. Noonan is nothing if not geometrically astute and he knows a good scene when he writes one. He’s just a little careless about making it all connect.

You might say “Serious Gift” is loaded with scenes that play well but suffers from a weakened spine.

Mom seems to have infinite patience with Dad. She also becomes an overnight sensation as a thousand-dollar-a-day salesperson in a clothing boutique. Hmm? Dad, who’s made blank stabs at writing children’s books, poetry and songs, suddenly decides to become a playwright, writes one act of his very first play and it’s so terrific that backers are standing in line waiting to pour in their money. Hmmmm?

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Sure, there is talk of deadlines to meet and Jason’s repeated failures of will and some supercharged drama leading up to the writing of that fabled second act, but the linkage strains credibility.

And another thing. Just as a family kept together by a wise child is not in the best of all possible hands, neither is a play that relies heavily on a child’s performance.

Heath as Charlie carries a lot of this “Serious Gift” on her small shoulders, more than is wise or even fair. She offers a game portrayal and on occasion a moving one, but she’s also difficult to understand and not consistently up to the large demands of the role.

Dowling offers a rather passive wife in Sarah, a woman clearly able to take care of herself and her daughter but who sticks around for unconvincing reasons, especially since she’s attracted to that lawyer from across the street.

As that lawyer, Green is a bit hamstrung by the yuppie prototype. And Cross, a long-legged eyeful, provides a self-centered prototype of a different stripe.

But it is Jordan’s snake-charmer performance as the complex, lying, infuriating Jason that keeps this play going. The man is full of classic contradictions--scared and brutal, tender and violent, contrite and aggressive--conveying the poignant reality of that “barking dog” in his heart that keeps him freebasing his cocaine.

John Iacovelli designed the New York Upper West Side apartment, Frieda M. Paras the plausible costumes, Paulie Jenkins the straightforward lights and Jon Gottlieb the sound. Jerry Heymann directed with an often compelling intensity, but there are serious flaws in “Serious Gift” that won’t be directed out of existence. Rewritten maybe. It’s worth finding out.

At 8532 Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood, Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends April 9. Tickets: $15-$17.50; (213) 652-6165.

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