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

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.

"Working with him was absolutely painless," Seymour said of his 1987 staging of "Spanish Confusion." "He's had a lot of success--and I think it's made him very low-key. He was never hanging over my shoulder, offering advice. He was just supportive . On opening night, when a lot of playwrights get crazy and take it out on me, John didn't. Sure, he's kooky. He writes kooky plays. But he's a very lovable guy. And I've never met any writer who writes as much as him."

Indeed, the last few years have been especially prolific for Noonan. And although he lives in New York, most of his plays have been done in Los Angeles: "Spanish Confusion," "Mom Sells Twins for Beer," "Recent Developments in Southern Connecticut," "Talking Things Over With Chekhov" and "Some Men Need Help"--all staged during the 1987-88 season.

Yet in spite of the profusion of plays, Noonan says he considers himself "mostly an actor." His credits include "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," "Brown Wolf" and an Emmy-winning role in a 1984 episode of "St. Elsewhere."

"I've been in like a half-dozen features, done 10 to 15 plays," he said. "I did a lot of Shakespeare, I was an apprentice in the original American Conservatory Theatre company. I went to Carnegie Tech and got an M.A., did a lotta acting there. After this, I'm gonna go back to New York and be in a play of my own called 'Friends in High Places.' It's about a transplanted New Yorker who's a Hollywood character actor, an ex-athlete, a big guy."

Shades of true life? "I once went to see a play by a friend of mine and it was embarrassingly autobiographical," he said. "I said to the guy, 'I couldn't write like this.' He said, 'John, I'll show you all the times in your plays. . . .' So maybe it's more covert. But sure, it's me.

"See, I used to wanna control things. I was good at sports, but I tried to force the game. Over time, I've learned I can't control that. I can't control what the critics say. So I just accept it--and I don't worry. It's like: 'God built the river; God built the boat. Jump in and go.' You can't hold the boat till you like the way the water looks. That's what I try to do in my own life. Right now I feel good about it. I wake up every morning and pray, just to say how thankful I am."

It wasn't always so sunny. Although Noonan acknowledges a previous "chemical addiction," "I don't discuss it publicly now," he said firmly. "I don't do it. It's past. It taught me a lot. Like I don't wanna die. I'm a physical chicken. I don't like all those things people go through. Plus I lost a lot of friends--really good people, who just checked out."

Part of the calmer mode includes not taking things too seriously.

"Someone may not like your play or the way you're dressed," he said, waving off the suggestion that he dresses for effect. "The way I dress isn't provocative or hostile. It just feels comfortable. For my mother, who I really care about, I'll get spiffied up--'cause it matters to her. But this is very natural to me. I once was a clotheshorse. After college, I was a Latin teacher; I wore ties and jackets. I love three-piece suits; they really keep you held in. Somehow I got off of that."

Along the way, he also lost much of the discipline developed in his parochial school education. "I became a stagehand in a rock 'n' roll theater in the '60s, which was part of the thing that got me into writing--just the permission of it. To live, people need food and attention, a certain amount of stroking. For me to write a play, I need food, attention and permission--just to do it, to make that arrogant leap: 'I'm gonna write about this.' For me, 1968-75 was a great permission thing."

Beginning in the year of 1969--the Lincoln Center production of his "The Year Boston Won the Pennant"--it was also about success.

"In the early days, I had quite a bit of money," he said. "These last few years, I've been kinda poor. So you say to yourself, 'What do I need?' A bed, a desk to write at, clean clothes--and a few strokes. I must admit, I shirk a few responsibilities in the world: I pay a bill late, a collection agency will call me. I don't worry about that. I let everything take its course. Nobody's gonna hurt me. The thing most people don't understand is if you need to do something, that's it. The life comes after the need."

Noonan says that need does not include riches. "I made an amount of money from 'White Chicks' that embarrassed me," he said. "I called it 'found money.' Sure, I took it--and I blew it fast. It seemed unnaturally large. It was disproportionate to the other 30-some plays I've written. I've never counted 'em, but there's quite a few. I work a lot, you know."

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