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Arthur, Arthur : Bea Arthur, star of 'Maude' and 'The Golden Girls,' has sworn off episodic television but has kinder words for theater--and the play she's committed to see through to Broadway.

October 08, 1995|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

She pads barefoot out of her front door, her regal carriage hidden by baggy pants and a loose blouse. With a demure handshake and warm hello, she invites a guest inside, where, once through the portal, she mumbles something about a stew on the stove before offering cold drinks.

Gracious and unpretentious, the actress seems almost imperceptibly harried--as if she's slightly uncomfortable with the prospect of the impending interview, or maybe even a bit shy.

Shy? The woman known all over the world as that take-no-prisoners 1970s go-getter Maude?

Yes. Don't confuse actress Beatrice Arthur with her small-screen persona. Cashmere to Maude's scratchy wool, Arthur is a delicate and nearly self-effacing presence--much softer in person than she appears on screen.

"She's very vulnerable," says veteran actress Renee Taylor. "I don't think I've ever seen that in Maude. I was surprised how girlish she really is."

Arthur is, in fact, bemused by her enduring fame as a standard-bearer of women's lib. Some people may seek icon status, but others, it seems, have it thrust upon them.

"The Joan of Arc of the feminist movement, right?" she says, laughing ironically at the gap between the real Bea Arthur and her Maude-esque image. "I don't know what to say about that. I'm a tall lady with a deep voice, and it just happened that way."

Of course, it isn't only "Maude." The public tends to assume not only that Arthur shares her characters' ways but that she chose her major roles for their social significance.

"Everybody said, 'Is that what attracted you to "Golden Girls," the fact that it deals with older women and coping?' " Arthur says. "No. When I first read the script I didn't even think they were older women. I just thought, 'How funny, how bright,' and I loved the characters."

Whether it was earned or not, you can't really blame her for wanting to tone down the Strong Woman typecast. But then, for that matter, Arthur wasn't always a TV actress, either.

The classically trained, Tony-winning Arthur is, however, about to topple at least one of these commonly held misperceptions. She makes her L.A. stage debut this week, opposite Taylor and Joseph Bologna, in "Bermuda Avenue Triangle."

The comedy, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly and written by the husband-and-wife team of Taylor and Bologna, opens Saturday at the Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood and is slated for Broadway in the spring.

It promises to show a side of Arthur that few have seen.

"The character is the opposite of her and anything she's ever played: uneducated, primitive, working-class, unsophisticated," Taylor says.

But Arthur is simply flexing thespian muscles that TV never let her use.

"She has a lot of courage onstage," Taylor adds. "We try something new and she's always up for it. She takes tremendous risks."

Arthur's warm-hued and inviting living room is at once arty and homey, filled with antiques, objets d'art and other mementos. On the piano there are childhood pictures of her two grown sons: Matthew and Daniel Saks (sons of Arthur's former husband, Tony-winning director Gene Saks), the latter of whom is designing the set for "Bermuda."

Through the window behind the piano, there's a wide expanse of lawn, punctuated occasionally by two roving but affable Dobermans. Chairs and a small table form an intimate conversation group near the window, in a corner of the woodsy Westside home where Arthur has lived for 20 years.

She sits forward in her chair, flops back, then sits forward on the edge again, searching, perhaps, for a pose that aptly conveys the mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that she feels today.

"Here I am--tired, I cannot tell you!" she says. "This would not be so grueling if we weren't still writing. Every day, things change. So it's been a maddening experience, but such fun I can't tell you."

Taylor and Bologna, who have been writing together for 27 of the 29 years they've been married, gave Arthur the script around Christmastime last year. The actress had been in a film ("Lovers and Other Strangers") that was based on a Taylor-Bologna play, but she had never worked with the couple.

Although she had fielded a number of theater offers before, this one was different.

"I like the outrageousness of this play," Arthur says. "And of course I like the evolvement of the characters."

Arthur hadn't been on the boards since 1985, when she appeared at Lincoln Center in Woody Allen's "The Floating Light Bulb." And with the exception of the Allen play, she says, "I haven't done any real stage since 1972 when I came out to do 'Maude.' "

"Bermuda Avenue Triangle" focuses on two widowed women who buy their daughters a condominium and then are forced to live there. The comedy premiered in February at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, where it played two three-week engagements before moving on to a one-month run at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.

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