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By Laura Hitchcock
It's premiere week for ghostly tales in Los Angeles. Conor McPherson's The Weir, in which the denizens of an Irish pub relate an increasingly chilling series of stories, opened at the Geffen and over at the Coronet Studio Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard, Jack Simmons performs Buddy's Gift, the one-man show which he wrote about the life, death and afterlife of his father.
Simmons is a large man with a mirror-image resemblance to his father, whose photograph holds pride of place among the family pictures on the set's wall, flanked by an old leather easy chair and decades-old furniture. A stand-up comic and professional musician, his conversational presentation draws the audience in as surely as if we were sitting in his living room, which is the desired effect.
Simmons skips briefly and humorously over the early married years in which eight children were born to Buddy and his wife, including Mary who died in infancy of spina bifida. He impersonates Buddy as a gruff patriarchal Irishman who nevertheless made his children vie to be his helpers.
Interesting how absorbing tales of illness are. The story really begins when Buddy gets sick. You could hear a pin drop as Simmons details the diagnosis, the mis-diagnosis, the illness (mercifully brief but long enough to allow his large family to gather and spend the final days with him) which culminates in Buddy's death from cancer with all his family at his bedside. A grief counselor has told them they each have time to unburden themselves of something they've been wanting to tell Dad. By the time Jack, son Number Three, arrives, Buddy sighs wearily, "OK, now what do YOU have to tell me?" His relief when Jack can't think of anything is loud and heartfelt.
But the family hasn't heard the last of Buddy. After his death, strange things start happening; for example, when his name is mentioned, lights flick on and off. Jack's mother makes an appointment with medium John Edward for the entire family. The medium recounts facts only known to family members and relays simple messages from the beyond.
Explanations for such readings have ranged from a cunning private detective agency to picking up ESP from the bereaved to, of course, Buddy being there. Whatever, Jack Simmons' story is really a tribute to this close family dynamic. One can almost sense a medium being overwhelmed by the energy from the concerned close family packed into his office.
As performer, Simmons, whose career is largely in stand-up, essays a different style for his play. Directed by Candy Kaniecki (Herman), he drops the comedy club delivery punch-up at the end of the sentence for a natural conversational style that works well, although occasional end words are lost by that very drop in tone. Affable and funny, he holds the audience effortlessly.
Like Buddy's messages from beyond, the play would profit from more depth and detail. Its hard to characterize one's own family but even this 80-minute production conveys the sense that there is much more material here than the unfolding of incidents.
Written and performed by Jack Simmons
Directed by Candy Kaniecki (Herman)
Scenic Design by Esfehani
Lighting Design by Jeanyves Tessier
Running Time: 80 minutes without intermission.
Coronet Studio Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles
2/08/01-4/01/01; opening 2/10/01
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock February 10