Linda Lavin Takes Comedy to the Stage

She sits unnoticed in an Upper West Side diner, a small, quiet woman, sipping tea, a slice of unbuttered rye toast left untouched. Her voice, soft yet precise, can barely be heard above the clatter of tables being cleared and the din of elderly regulars complaining about the daily specials.

Hard to believe this is the same woman who eight times a week unleashes a performance of such volcanic proportions that its force threatens to shake the foundations of Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre _ with laughter.

Linda Lavin is talking craft, the profession of acting, an occupation that has concerned her for more than 40 years and one she says she is forever perfecting.

These days, she saves her strength for the stage and for portraying Marjorie Taub, an emotionally unraveling Manhattan matron unsatisfied with her middle-class life. The play is "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," by Charles Busch, a writer and performer better known for doing drag than writing mainstream boulevard comedy.

A hit off-Broadway last season at Manhattan Theatre Club's tiny Stage II, "Allergist's Wife" reopened at the Barrymore in November with its theatrical potency undiminished by the larger space. In fact, many critics thought it was better, thanks to some minor rewriting of the play's ending and Lavin's galvanizing performance.

"Everything I do is an extension of what came before. We bring everything we've done to the next thing. We didn't just arrive. There is a body of work behind us _ whether you like it or not _ and it's there to refer to," Lavin says.

But what sparked that work, lifting it beyond the ordinary, not only on stage but in other mediums as well?

"Linda is a force of nature," says Lynne Meadow, director of "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" and MTC's artistic head. "She has these incredible instincts that make her open to new ideas. She makes those instincts available to you so you can collaborate. Plus she's a very hard worker. I call her the Energizer bunny, intellectually and physically."

Others agree about her talent. In Neil Simon's autobiographical "Broadway Bound," Lavin played the young hero's embittered mother, a woman who holds on to the golden memory of once having danced with George Raft. "She was as brilliant as any actress I've ever worked with," Simon emphatically states in his memoir, "The Play Goes On."

Most people, though, know Lavin from "Alice," the hit television series that ended nearly 16 years ago and was only one part of a long career. An important one, to be sure. The nine-year run of "Alice" gave Lavin visibility and the financial security to pick and choose what she wanted to do.

"The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" was something she wasn't sure about. The seeds of the play were sown in 1997 at the opening of "The Green Heart," a musical Busch co-authored for the nonprofit MTC. "The Green Heart" wasn't successful, but on opening night Meadow asked him for his next play.

"I started writing the play without any actress in mind. That's a rare thing for me. I usually write for THIS actress," Busch says with a laugh, pointing to himself.

Early in its creation, the playwright went to see Lavin in "Death Defying Acts," a trio of Woody Allen comedies playing off-Broadway. "I couldn't get her out of my head," he recalls. "I continued writing with her voice in mind."

When Meadow asked Busch for his dream leading lady, Lavin's name was at the top of the list.

The play's first reading at MTC was "wild," according to Busch. Most readings are tentative, almost somber affairs, held to give the author and the director a chance to hear a play spoken out loud. Actors, clutching scripts and sipping bottled water, sit at long tables in anonymous rehearsal rooms.

Not so Lavin. "She literally threw herself into the part," Busch says, giving what he described as a very Anna Magnani-like performance. "At one point, she got up and, in character, began stalking the room. We were just beside ourselves. It was thrilling. When it was all over, we were rapturous."

And Lavin turned them down.

"At a reading, you can go to the moon, and I did," Lavin says.

Yet when Meadow called her the next day to ask if she would do the play, Lavin told the director, "`I never want to work that hard again. Thanks anyway.' I knew what it was going to take out of me to do the play. I could feel it at that reading _ even without having to be physical."

A year passed, and Busch resubmitted the script to her, along with a letter that, according to Lavin, was "a very affectionate expression of his feeling about me. I cried when I read it."

Lavin read the play again. "It still made me laugh and cry," she says. "That's always the litmus test for me. I want to be moved when I read something. I want it to come off the page. It so rarely happens that the writing is so exciting that it makes you want to start living it.

"I thought, `How can I turn this down? A writer who says he wants to write for me. How often does this happen in a lifetime?' We come to a point after all the years of tap-dancing where we deserve to work with people who feel this way about us, who express such honor, respect and affection for us."

Born in Portland, Maine, Lavin was the daughter of a furniture dealer and a former concert singer who sang on local radio. Much of her early career focused on musical theater because she could sing, and she wasn't ever thought of for nonmusical roles.

"That's how I got my first jobs _ through chorus auditions," she says.

The actress had several small roles in "A Family Affair," a little-known 1962 musical, the first Broadway musical directed by Harold Prince. He didn't forget her when he did "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman" four years later, casting her in the Man-of-Steel musical as an inquisitive Girl Friday.

A year earlier Lavin had gained notice in the long-running off-Broadway revue "The Mad Show," in which she sang a hilarious bossa-nova tinged spoof "The Boy From ... ." It had music by Mary Rodgers and witty lyrics by Esteban Ria Nido, better known as Stephen Sondheim.

In 1969, she was cast in the off-Broadway revival of "Little Murders," Jules Feiffer's black comedy about everyday violence in New York City. She was hired by director Alan Arkin because he had seen and liked her in "Superman." Critics and audiences discovered she could act as well as sing _ not only act but be funny, too.

Comedy is serious business for Lavin, always rooted in truth. Busch says it was fascinating watching Lavin rehearse the tormented Marjorie, a complex woman having a nervous breakdown.

"The role lent itself to excess, but Linda was not self-indulgent, and it was interesting to watch her build this foundation of emotion that was very real, but still very funny," he says.

"You can't teach someone to have natural musical or comic ability," Lavin responds. "But I think you can learn certain techniques about how best to do comedy.

"I'm lucky. I come from people who had expansive senses of humor. It was funny in my house. Not necessarily without its melancholy, but that's also a great source of comedy. The source to me of what is truly funny is true pain and true anger and the need to rise above them. To get relief from the pain, to get relief from the anger: `How do I get out of this?'

"As Middle European Jews, a lot of us know that. The people we come from know that. It's the survival button. It's what I apply to certain characters: the Neil Simon characters that I played knew that and Alice knew that _ she was gutsy and plucky and she had a sense of humor."

These days, Lavin says she is getting back as much as she is giving.

"I love the sound of laughter. I love the sound of people absolutely losing control. There's nothing more satisfying. Sometimes it makes me laugh while I'm standing there doing it. It's like I'm having an exchange with the audience."

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