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CRITIC AT LARGE

Alan Arkin Follows Up A Fling With Lemmings

March 08, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The chief drawback to being an actor, I've always imagined, would be figuring out what to do when you're not acting.

You're a successful actor and no longer have to pump gas or sling hash to pay the rent, so what do you do between gigs? Musicians practice, writers write compulsively, basketball players can shoot a few baskets in solitude. Actors can work at keeping in shape, but they need a group to engage their creative souls.

Alan Arkin, who is one of the best actors around, also directs. The revival of "Room Service," which he directed and which stars his son, Adam, is a current hit Off Broadway. He is about to direct a new play, "Forgive Me, Evelyn Bunns," at the Asola Theater in Sarasota, Fla., a family project that will have his wife, Barbara Dana, and his sons Tony and Adam in the cast. Another son, Matthew, represents the author.

But, increasingly, Arkin writes. He has just published a new novel, his fourth book, "The Clearing" (Harper & Row: $12.95), a parable about a lemming named Bubber who is trying to figure out who he is. The book is a follow-on to an earlier novel, "The Lemming Condition."

"I'm fascinated by lemmings," Arkin says. "They seem to be a perfect symbol of a lot of things. Do they really commit mass suicide? There's an argument about that. But halfway through the book I found some film of lemmings making a suicidal leap. Unbelievable."

Lemmings--small, furry rodents found in very cold country, principally in Norway and Nova Scotia--are famous for their mass migrations, which often take them right off precipices or into the sea, where they perish by the thousands.

Whether they know they're going to die or whether it just works out that way is in dispute. Either way, it has struck Arkin as a case where behavior modification and a firmer grasp on reality would be a big help.

His lemming is induced to reconsider his ways, even his identity, by the charismatic bear who runs the clearing. The bear may be a charlatan (Arkin says he deliberately left the point obscure); his advice is so cryptic and obscure that it is worthy of a Beverly Hills analyst, tossing the hard questions right back at the patient.

"The point," Arkin says, "is that there are some things in life that can't be talked about, and can't really be taught. It's like singing opera or playing ball. When you've got it right, nobody has to tell you because you'll know it, but nobody can tell you it's right until you know it."

(Arkin well remembers a particular moment in a particular play while he was studying here with a teacher named Benjamin Zemack, who had studied with Stanislavsky. "For the first time," Arkin says, "I became the character. I came off the stage flying, and Zemack told me I was acting, but he didn't have to tell me. I knew.")

The clearing also includes a large snake named Russell, from the noise he makes in the grass, and a cougar and a crow among others. They are anthropomorphic but distinctly post-Disney, saying things like "Not bloody likely" and worrying about the nature of reality and the need for social responsibility.

The lemming even toys with the idea that he is a lion. It's a kind of brainstorming, calculated to shake out old ideas and discover how much of reality is only what we say is reality. Writing is hard, Arkin says. "I give up constantly. What I do to keep from quitting is get an advance if I can. Then I can't quit because I'm obligated." He was nevertheless a year late with the current manuscript.

As with most writers, he says, "An idea will get hold of me and won't leave me alone." The notion that became "The Clearing" had been teasing him for years and was slow getting onto paper. (It doesn't read so, but has an easy and polished charm, with a saving edge of testiness and flawed humanity in the characterizations that keeps cuteness at bay.)

"I never wanted to be anything but an actor," Arkin says. "But things keep happening." In his 20s, he was hospitalized for six weeks with hepatitis. "I couldn't play the guitar or pace up and down, my two favorite things," he says. Instead, he wrote, and turned out some sci-fi stories, which he sold.

When son Tony, now 18, was 3, Arkin wrote a story for him. It found its way to Harper & Row, which published it (it was called "Tony's Hard Work Day"). "The Lemming Condition" and "Halfway Through the Door" followed in due if difficult course. "Now if the scripts don't arrive, it's not so frustrating," he says.

Arkin continues to get scripts. His performance last year as Joshua's ex-boxer, ex-con father in "Joshua Then and Now" was one of the best roles he has done. (He thinks it may be the best thing he's ever done, although admirers of his deaf-mute in "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" might argue the point.) More recently he has starred in a film for CBS-TV called "Deadly Business," about toxic waste.

If Arkin's lemming is his symbol of (among other things) the seeker after crucial self-knowledge, his mysterious, guru-like, shaman-like bear is a symbol of the teacher who, in the end, Arkin says, "can only assure you that what you are seeking is there. But you have to discover it yourself."

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