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Linda Lavin is awash in good fortune

It's been a winding — and fruitful — acting trajectory for the actress, now working at the top of her craft on stage in Jon Robin Baitz's 'Other Desert Cities' at Lincoln Center.

February 20, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Actress Linda Lavin on the stage of the play "Other Desert Cities" at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater in Manhattan, NY.
Actress Linda Lavin on the stage of the play "Other Desert Cities"… (Jennifer S. Altman, For…)

Reporting from New York — — The best showbiz careers are unpredictable. Longevity, one index of success, entails a flair for reinvention. Resting on one's laurels, as any longstanding "somebody" can tell you, is the quickest way of summoning the hook.

Linda Lavin, currently making eccentric comic mischief in Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, has gone from chorus girl to sitcom star to Tony-winning stage veteran in a wild professional ride that no fortune teller could have foretold. It's a tale of versatility meeting adaptability, but why grasp for formulas when Hamlet can sum up Lavin's story in a few choice words? For in her case, harking back to her crib days when, as family legend has it, she stood to deliver "God Bless America" before anyone knew she could talk, the readiness has indeed been all.

The performing arts were a given for this child from Portland, Maine, born to a mother who gave up her career as an opera singer to raise a family. Lavin's early adolescence was spent trying to become a concert pianist in fulfillment of her mother's wishes. At 15, she cut her hand before a recital and won her freedom to pursue her own dream of acting. The stage is where she developed and feels most at home, but TV is where she found national fame as the greasy-spoon waitress on the long-running series "Alice."

The happiest tales always seem to come full circle, and Lavin's portrayal of Silda, the wisecracking alcoholic aunt just out of rehab in Baitz's bruising domestic comedy, reminds us of the theatrical source of her vintage talent. Contentedly living in Wilmington, N.C., where she and her husband, Steve Bakunas, are the proud owners of a small theater, she was persuaded once again to return to the New York stage by director Joe Mantello's dream ensemble (Stockard Channing, Elizabeth Marvel, Stacy Keach and Thomas Sadoski), and a troubled yet determined character she wanted to find within herself.

"I love the writing," Lavin says, smiling serenely on a couch in a backstage office after a Sunday matinee, her hair still in the slightly outré style of her character's. "Writing that combines a person's sense of humor with desperate need and pain is very exciting and satisfying to play. What intrigued me about the role was the struggle to recover from a painful past. And then being in a family of people in such denial and being the character, as I see her, who is the straight shooter."

Silda (a close cousin, it would seem, to Claire in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance") doesn't come on stage for the first 25 pages, but we hear all about this ardent liberal's recent fall from sobriety and the intervention that ensued. ("Her liver needs a liver," is the answer to the question, "How bad is it?") And when she does finally emerge from a marathon sleep, Lavin enters like a flying saucer whose radar is on the fritz.

"Hey kids!" she gingerly chirps. "Oh boy! Wooh. Jesus Christ, you know what happens when you don't drink? You have dreams. I hate dreams. I have more Nazi dreams than Elie Wiesel!"

Set in Palm Springs on Christmas Eve 2004, "Other Desert Cities" revolves around the secrets and lies of the Wyeth family. Lyman (Keach), a former B-movie star and Republican Party stalwart, and Polly (Channing), an elegantly attired, no-nonsense Nancy Reagan acolyte, are not prepared for the bombshell their daughter Brooke (Marvel) reluctantly drops on them: She's written a book about the suicide of her brother that makes a direct connection between her parents' right-wing politics and the tragedy of her favorite sibling.

Perhaps the fizziest delight of Baitz's play, which runs until Feb. 27 at Lincoln Center and is slated to move to Broadway in the fall, is the sight of Lavin's bohemian Silda firing slingshot bull's-eyes against the artillery spray of her sister, Channing's formidably conservative Polly. Lavin's lines aren't superabundant — she's asleep on a chaise lounge for a chunk of the second act — but she makes each moment (conscious or unconscious) count, registering the pent-up antagonism as only a great comic actress can.

Like her older contemporaries Marian Seldes and Elaine Stritch, Lavin, 73, seems to grow bolder with age. But then every time I see her (in "Collected Stories," "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," The Diary of Anne Frank"), I'm always a little taken aback that the friendly faced star of "Alice" is such a fearless stage animal.

My first exposure to Lavin was through sitcoms — a memorable guest spot on "Rhoda" as a former high school nemesis who hasn't changed her spots, and a recurring role in the early days of "Barney Miller" as Det. Janice Wentworth. I knew she could sing from hearing her belt out "There's a New Girl in Town" on "Alice." But I was in my infancy during her Broadway musical breakthrough in 1966 — "It's a Bird … It's a Plane … It's Superman," directed by Harold Prince.

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