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Onstage and Off, Linda Lavin Shares

May 21, 1999|IRENE LACHER, Los Angeles Times

Here's the ladies' room review of Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories" at the Geffen Playhouse. The opening-night consensus among women powdering their noses was: Who knew Linda Lavin was such a powerful actor?

All of New York, actually. Lavin has been a significant presence in New York theater for years, scoring her third Tony nomination for "The Diary of Anne Frank" last year.

She is making her stage debut in Los Angeles with her portrayal of the literary lion who roars in "Collected Stories." That means L.A. audiences who haven't seen Lavin in New York may still think of her as "Alice," the pink-collar heroine of the TV sitcom that ran from 1976 to 1985.

"Of course I want everybody to come and see me do this because I love surprising people," she said during the after-party Wednesday at Westwood's Maui Beach Cafe. "So it's a big showoff thing for me to come out here and say, 'I want you to see what I do.' But I think sharing what you do is a very important, valuable effort."

And we Californians would be the first to thank you for sharing.

During Lavin's first couple of weeks of rehearsals here, she was still playing the New Yorker--she took taxis everywhere--but that wasn't by choice.

"I broke a finger in North Carolina six weeks ago and I had surgery on it. Don't ever break a finger. It's worse than you ever could imagine. I was walking my darling dog, and she went one way and I went another. The good news is I can drive now. Fingers are very complicated, so hopefully someday I'll be able to play the piano again."

Is that like playing the violin again? "I mean it literally. I said to the surgeon, 'I'm a musician and I really need this finger back.' I thought I would scare him into making me perfect again."

Also celebrating was Lavin's co-star Samantha Mathis, who wrapped up filming "American Psycho" before taking on the role of the literary protege. Mathis has concentrated on movies and television but with any luck, she may grow up to be a Linda Lavin.

*

Ernest J. Gaines has tasty plans for Saturday night when HBO unveils its small-screen version of his elegiac National Book Critics award winner, "A Lesson Before Dying." He'll be celebrating at a friend's crayfish boil back home in Louisiana. And, if Tuesday evening's screening at the Directors Guild was any indication, everyone will be crying into their crayfish.

"I hope I stop crying, because I've seen the movie six times and I've cried every time," Gaines said cheerily after the screening as revelers nibbled on Southern-style ribs and crab cakes. Get out the handkerchiefs. This author even makes himself cry. But there's a payoff to sniffling over Gaines' tale of a teacher helping an unjustly condemned prisoner face his death.

"I try to create characters with character to improve my own character and maybe the characters of those who might read me," Gaines said.

Also partying were "Lesson" stars Don Cheadle, Mekhi Phifer, Irma P. Hall, Brent Jennings and Lisa Arrindell Anderson, as well as executive producers Ellen Krass, Ted Demme and Joel Stillerman, producer Bob Benetti, teleplay author Ann Peacock and HBO Original Movies President Colin Callender.

Irene Lacher's Out & About column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on Page 2. She can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.

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